Nationally, climate change is a partisan issue with clearly assigned camps. The Democratic National Committee addresses climate change 24 times in its 2016 platform, while the Republican National Committee makes only three mentions. But in Rhode Island, gubernatorial candidates are defying partisan expectations in reference to one contentious piece of fossil fuel infrastructure: the proposed natural gas-burning power plant in Burrillville.
Republican candidate Allan Fung opposes the power plant, while Democrat Gov. Gina Raimondo lauded the plant upon its plan for construction in 2015, though her rhetoric has become more neutral in recent months. Independent Joe Trillo has also spoken out against the plant.
For some Democrats in Burrillville, Raimondo’s wavering stance is causing them to think twice about the party they will support in the upcoming gubernatorial election. Since 2015, the town of Burrillville and the Conservation Law Foundation have vehemently fought against the plant’s ability to get a building permit from the Energy Facility Siting Board, which has yet to make the decision and continues to hold hearings on potential construction. The initial 2015 press release by Invenergy, the company building the plant, stated that construction would begin in 2016, but no ground has been broken.
“It’s a land issue, it’s an open space, clean water, clean air issue,” said Paul Roselli, president of the Burrillville Land Trust. “With climate change being more and more prevalent, each and every one of us has to oppose anything to do with fossil fuels.”
Roselli ran as a Democratic candidate for the Senate seat representing the 23rd district of Rhode Island in this year’s primary and strongly backed Democrat Matt Brown in the gubernatorial primary. This presents Roselli with a quandary when he enters the ballot box on Nov. 6: Should he vote for his party’s representative if she hasn’t taken the same strides as her Republican opponent to block the plant?
“To be bluntly honest, I don’t know (who I’m voting for),” Roselli said, adding that he is not enthusiastic about any candidate.
Professor of Environmental Studies and Sociology Timmons Roberts has already pledged his support for Raimondo, but he believes the power plant puts liberal voters in an “uncomfortable position.” Roberts testified to the EFSB in 2016 and 2018 that the power plant would make it impossible for the state to achieve its carbon emission reduction goals.
Raimondo could not be reached for comment, but in recent months, she has backed off from her previous support of the power plant and emphasized the autonomy of the EFSB in its decision to grant the power plant a permit.
“I’m not going to ram the decision through. I trust the process and respect the outcome that they come up with,” Raimondo said in a general election debate hosted by ecoRI News.
Throughout her time as governor, Raimondo has prioritized environmental issues, rolling out a plan to increase renewable energy production by 100 percent by the end of 2020. She has emphasized that the EFSB should take into account the recent growth of renewables, like offshore wind, when considering the need for the new plant.
Despite the EFSB being an independent “quasi-judicial body that should be ruling like a judge rules,” Burrillville residents have expressed concern that the process is political, said Jerry Elmer, senior attorney for CLF. Many worry that two of the three EFSB board members, who “sit at the pleasure of the governor,” feel implicit encouragement to allow a permit because of Raimondo’s history of support for the plant, Elmer added. Donna Woods, a Burrillville resident, voted in 2014 for Raimondo, who she saw as “a woman and a Democrat (I) thought was supporting my own beliefs.” But Raimondo’s unwillingness to oppose the power plant drove Woods to look elsewhere for the 2018 election. Since the primaries, Woods has been organizing “town hall forums” for prospective politicians to pitch their platforms to Burrillville residents. She hosted Fung Oct. 25.
Woods does not conduct official polls, but she sees residents’ interactions with the various contenders and receives feedback on candidates. Though Burrillville residents feared Fung would be aligned with President Trump’s environmental policies, they found he would diverge from some of the traditional Republican policies, she said.
Fung advocated for communities to have “local control” over infrastructure projects like the power plant. Woods has now made up her mind to vote for Fung — and, according to her, she’s not alone.
“We are painfully aware that the governor says one thing but does another on the environment, but we have been afraid of the national implications of voting for Fung,” Woods said. Yet, “more people than not are saying that they will lean toward voting for Fung now” after his town hall forum, Woods said.
Brown students involved in Rhode Island Sunrise, a chapter of a national youth movement to stop climate change, have shown up to multiple EFSB hearings and rallies in opposition of the power plant, said Lauren Maunus ’19, a member of the group. Maunus saw a connection between Raimondo’s stance on the power plant and the money she has received from fossil fuel companies, including a $250,000 August donation from oil and gas company Samson Energy Company.
But for Maunus, Fung’s opposition to the power plant isn’t sufficient to earn a vote.“I never will approach fossil fuel money or climate change as a single issue, and I think it’s very dangerous to put that before other human rights and social justice and civil rights issues,” Maunus said. “I would not say that just because Fung is opposed to the power plant, he should have any more attraction or any more support for candidacy.”
Roberts agreed with Maunus. While Fung and Trillo may oppose the power plant, he predicts their actions on climate change issues would be insufficient or even stifling to the plans already in place.
“The two other candidates are just totally unacceptable,” he said. “On climate and many, many other things. They have not expressed any leadership or concern (on) the issue of climate change and would be at the head of dismantling what state agencies we have to deal with issues like climate change.”
Even after three years of hearings on the power plant, Burrillville residents will continue to wait on a decision from the EFSB into the new year. More hearings are scheduled throughout January, Elmer said.