On the day the Rhode Island Senate Finance Committee passed the legislation that would establish the Energy Facilities Siting Board (EFSB), Robert L Bendick Jr, the director of the RI Department of Environmental Management (DEM) asked, “I just wonder what’s going on here. What’s the driving force behind this?” [Providence Journal, April 11, 1986; pg A-15]
The question Bendick asked on April 9, 1986 strongly resonates today. Jerry Elmer, of the Conservation Law Foundation, said the EFSB “was designed to take the power to stop a proposal like Invenergy’s out of the hands of the local people… and put it into the hands of the EFSB.”
Governor Gina Raimondo refers to EFSB decision making as “the process” and asks us all to trust in it, but how are we to trust if we can’t tell if the intent of the process is to serve Rhode Islanders or to serve the energy industry?
What is going on here? Here’s some historical context.
Back in 1986, Ward Pimley, writing for the ProJo, wrote, “Sen. Victoria Lederberg, D-Providence, the sponsor, said the [EFSB] bill streamlines the approval process required for obtaining licenses to build major energy facilities for generation of electricity, treatment of liquefied natural gas, oil refineries and the like…”
Victoria Lederberg was an impressive woman and public servant. A judge, she “served as state representative from 1975-1983 ,representing the East Side of Providence, and state senator from 1985-1991… Lederberg was a trailblazer, becoming the first woman of Italian heritage to serve in the Rhode Island legislature.”
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Pimley continues, “In previous testimony, Lederberg called the siting board concept ‘one-stop shopping,’ where interested developers could learn what they must do to obtain licenses and fulfill obligations to build. She said it removes jurisdictional overlapping among regulatory agencies.
“She said the bill recognizes the state’s need for ‘reasonably priced, reliable sources of energy’ and balances that with issues affecting public health and environmental impact.”
Nine years earlier, in his January 1977 inaugural address, Governor J Joseph Garahy outlined his ideas for the state’s energy objectives. Siting of energy projects heretofore had been haphazard, and based solely on the whims of industry. Garahy had a vision “to site energy facilities in light of state plans, rather than private industry decisions.” He was governor of a Rhode Island that was suffering from environmental mismanagement, and the new governor was hoping for a different approach. The EFSB, at its best, would be a realization of Garahy’s vision, but in an effort to please industry rather than regulate it, Garahy’s vision may have been compromised.
Public Utilities Commission] Chairman Edward F Burke, Pimley wrote, “testified earlier that the legislation is important because there are eight or nine potential applications for energy-generating facilities that could be built in some other state unless the licensing procedure were streamlined.
“He cited a $300-million facility proposed for Burrillville that should provide electricity by 1989 on property owned by Narragansett Electric as an example of the type of facility that can be built.”
This $300-million facility is the Ocean State Power plant, which currently uses 4 million gallons of water a day to cool its turbines.
Recognizing that the EFSB would allow industry to override the environmental concerns of the state, Sen. William C. O’Neill, today more famous as a South County bike path than a Democratic senator from Narragansett, objected. Here’s Pimley’s play-by-play of what he called a ‘hot debate’:
“You feel DEM is an obstacle,” O’Neill said. “You removed that obstacle, and you know it.”
“You’re absolutely incorrect,” Lederberg shot back.
“I’m concerned that you’re allowing other agencies to override DEM,” O’Neill said.
“I totally disagree,” Lederberg said. “This shares decision-making. DEM has an important role. That’s why we’ve made them one of the board members. It does not weaken the permit-granting power by DEM.”
Lederberg said DEM does not have veto authority to stop any project it wants, but it still is involved in the planning process.
Then Sen. David R. Carlin Jr, D-Newport, said the siting board can overrule decisions of other agencies.
“It seems it’s clearly overriding DEM,” he said.
O’Neill, seeing DEM Director Robert L Bendick Jr watching the proceedings, said he would vote for the bill if Bendick agreed that DEM’s interests would not be jeopardized by it, but committee chairman Donald R. Hickey, D-Providence, called for a vote.
“The bill was approved, 8 to 4.”
This is what prompted Bendick to ask, “What’s going on here?” adding, “If what they’re doing is overriding the department’s authority, I’m opposed to it.”
Months earlier, in an editorial, the ProJo had endorsed Lederberg’s proposal writing, “As a House member in 1979, Mrs. Lederberg sponsored a similar bill that died in the Senate. Former Gov. J. Joseph Garrahy, who supported the bill, issued an executive order embodying many of its details, but that wasn’t an adequate substitute for statutory enactment…
“Mrs. Lederberg says energy installations must be reviewed in terms of regional need and cost-effectiveness, not on the basis that Rhode Island must be totally self-sufficient in energy.” [Providence Journal February 17, 1986; page A-10] Note that Lederberg is not quoted as mentioning, and that the ProJo editorial seems uninterested in, environmental issues.
Pimley noted that the bill, as originally introduced by Lederberg, allowed the General Assembly to override an EFSB decision, but that provision was removed before passage because “it was no longer needed.”
Pimley also noted that “support for the legislation came from the Governor’s Office of Energy Assistance, the PUC and Narragansett Electric Co.”
Narragansett Electric is today a wholly owned sub-entity of National Grid.
Of special concern to all involved with the establishment of the EFSB was a proposal “to build twin natural-gas-fired plants in Burrillville. According to a plan disclosed Tuesday, the plants would be supplied by a new, 25-mile gas pipeline that would run from Sutton, Mass., to the Burrillville site and on to Cranston.” [Providence Journal, February 13, 1986; page A-14]
The very first application the EFSB took up was the Ocean State Power Plant in Burrillville.