Demand that Raimondo’s energy appointments get true Senate oversight

By the time these nominations are heard in committee, it will be too late. These Senators need to hear from you now… Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo named three people to leadership positions on her state energy team: Nicholas Ucci as State Energy Commissioner (head of the Office of Energy Resources (OER)); Linda George as Administrator of the Division of

Rhode Island News: Demand that Raimondo’s energy appointments get true Senate oversight

February 4, 2020, 10:17 am

By Steve Ahlquist

By the time these nominations are heard in committee, it will be too late. These Senators need to hear from you now…

Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo named three people to leadership positions on her state energy team: Nicholas Ucci as State Energy Commissioner (head of the Office of Energy Resources (OER)); Linda George as Administrator of the Division of Public Utilities and Carriers (DPUC); and Ronald Gerwatowski as Chair of the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) and, by default, head of the Energy Facilities Siting Board (EFSB).

These nominations come at an important time for the future of energy and the environment both in the world and in Rhode Island. The future of Rhode Island’s energy systems will be shaped by these appointees, once confirmed. The way Rhode Island responds to climate change will be determined, in large part, by these appointees.

These nominees may well be the difference between doing something about climate change or simply slouching along, business as usual, towards doom.

The Rhode Island State Senate has the job of confirming these nominations. The Senate is tasked with offering “advice and consent” when it comes to gubernatorial nominations. This means that the Senate cannot simply “rubber stamp” these nominations. They have to ask serious questions, and get serious answers from the nominees. This is important because it is unknown where these nominees stand on some of the most important questions facing Rhode Island today, and some have troubling histories when it comes to the issues of climate change and climate justice.

For instance:

It was obvious, relatively early in the EFSB-Invenergy hearings, that the $1B fracked gas and diesel oil burning power plant proposed for Burrillville was not needed, as was ultimately decided after a four-year long ordeal. But Nicholas Ucci, working for the Office of Energy Resources, never gave up on advocating for this fracked gas and fossil fuel burning power plant.

OER fought to build the power plant right up to the end.

Is Nicholas Ucci truly the best person to shepherd a plan to make Rhode Island fossil fuel free in ten years?

When I asked Governor Gina Raimondo and Ucci if a plan to make Rhode Island 100 percent renewable energy in ten years means an end to new fossil fuel infrastructure in the state, Raimondo said, “That up to him,” referring to Ucci. Ucci said nothing.

Ucci needs to answer that question, and more, before his confirmation. No one is asking for a complete plan this early, but we might expect to hear some of the ideas and philosophies undergirding his process. We need to know if Ucci believes that more fossil fuel infrastructure will be needed, and what a plan to get to 100 percent renewable looks like as a big picture.

Also, the Rhode Island Progressive Democrats (RIPDA) are already developing such a plan, on a comprehensive level, with corporate interests ready to get going. Is Ucci aware of this plan? Has he been in contact with RIPDA?

There are just a few of the questions that Ucci must answer before he is confirmed. Who is going to ask these questions?

Ron Gerwatowski co-authored the DPUC report that determined the cause of the Aquidneck Island gas outages, and made several suggestions for preventing such outages in the future. One of the suggestions was to “add a twelve-inch pipe in parallel with the existing six-inch” fracked gas pipeline that connects the Port of Providence to Portsmouth. This will result in 5x the present gas capacity to Portsmouth. Nowhere in the report is it indicated that pipeline capacity was an issue, but when I asked DPUC about this, I got no response.

When I asked Governor Raimondo about this, she answered, “Yeah. I don’t know,” adding “And, I think Senator DiPalma said it, there’s the immediate issue, how we get through this winter, and then there are the longer term issues of capacity, infrastructure, affordability, resilience, and we have to get to the bottom before that.”

Acknowledging that the Governor was adamant that the costs to make the system safe and reliable not fall on ratepayers, I noted that I know of no pipelines installed anywhere that are not ultimately paid for by ratepayers.

“Yeah, fair enough,” replied Raimondo. “It’s premature for me to answer that, but that is exactly what we need to dig into.”

Gerwatowski needs to answer why, in the middle of his report, an unneeded gas pipeline is being suggested, which amounts to a multi-million dollar giveaway to National Grid and pipeline company Enbridge.

Being the head of the PUC also puts Gerwatowski in charge of the EFSB. As such, he will be deciding on National Grid’s application to be released from having to go to the EFSB to build so-called “temporary” LNG facilities throughout the state of Rhode Island.

That’s right, National Grid wants a declaratory order from the EFSB “that would determine that the portable LNG vaporization facility is not EFSB jurisdictional going forward.” The EFSB already granted National Grid a two-year exception to deal with the crisis on Aquidneck Island, but now National Grid wants to take that exception statewide and make it forever. Gerwatowski will be in charge of the process to approve National Grid’s request.

National Grid knows that building new fossil fuel infrastructure will be problematic going forward as public pressure builds to do something about climate change. By getting out from under EFSB oversight on “temporary” facilities, National Grid can continue to expand its fossil fuel infrastructure freely, without public involvement.

Remember that Gerwatowski, a former National Grid lawyer, co-authored the report suggesting a new, unneeded additional pipeline. Now he will be in charge of approving that pipeline, that can only serve to increase Rhode Island’s dependence on fossil fuels and serves as a giveaway to corporate interests interested in building and maintaining a new, very profitable piece of fossil fuel infrastructure in our state.

Who’s going to ask Gerwatowski about this before his confirmation?

The George Wiley Center and the Providence Democratic Socialists of America have been working for years to get National Grid to reinstate a program called PIPP (Percentage Income Payment Plan), an income-sensitive tiered subsidy program to ensure that home energy utility costs are affordable for eligible low-income households. The Wiley Center wrote to Governor Raimondo and all three nominees and received only two, non-committal responses from nominee DPUC Linda George and Gerwatoski.

As the new head of the DPUC, George is supposed to be looking out for all ratepayers, including the poorest and most marginalized. But instead of supporting PIP, or honestly admitting that she opposes the plan, George hid behind the idea that since there is no rate case currently before the DPUC, and that National Grid’s last rate case resulted in an inferior plan to protect low-income utility customers, there is nothing she can do about PIP until National Grid files its next rate case, which could be in 2021 or 2022.

This is not exactly true. She could support PIP, and PIPP could be instituted by the Rhode Island General Assembly or perhaps even the Governor. She could advocate for PIPP, lobby the legislature, and champion the idea. There is no need to wait for a rate case, and she knows this.

Gerwatoski was similarly evasive in his response, saying that as the head of the PUC, a “quasi-judicial” state organization, it was his job to be neutral on any subject that might come before his commission. This is also clearly not true. Certainly Gerwatoski must decide the cases before the PUC (and EFSB) fairly and according to the law, but he can have an opinion both about PIPP and about how the state is catering to the needs of low-income ratepayers.

Ucci and the Governor’s office did not respond to the George Wiley letter at all

Why can’t these nominees commit to helping people keep their power on? Why must so many people face shut-offs every year in our communities? Where do these nominees stand on important issues of energy and environmental justice?

These questions need to be asked, but too often the Senate Committees tasked with approving these nominations are rubber-stamps. The Senate repeatedly fails its constitutional duty of “advice and consent” when it comes to approving gubernatorial nominations.

It is not yet known which committee will be taking up these nominations. OER, PUC and DPUC nominations typically fall to the Senate Commerce Committee, but I’ve heard rumors that it may be the Senate Environment and Agriculture Committee that takes them up. The most important thing we can do, then, is to contact the Senators on both committees, as well as Senate leadership and every other State Senator, and let them know we expect them to do their jobs.

A few years ago Governor Raimondo made several key replacements to the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC), paving the way for National Grid to build a new liquefaction facility in the Port of Providence. Back then, few people understood what her nominations meant or the disastrous effects they would have on the Washington Park community, a mostly low-income, mostly people of color neighborhood dealing with environmental racism and the highest asthma rates in all of New England.

This time, we can see it coming, and the implications are statewide.

This is the time to contact Senate leadership with your concerns. Contact the committee members, contact your own Senator, because once the committee(s) approve these nominations, they will go to the full Senate for a vote.

By the time these nominations are heard in committee, it will be too late. These Senators need to hear from you now:

Office of the President of the Senate
Room 114, Rhode Island State House
Providence RI 02902
[email protected]

Senate President Dominick Ruggerio (Democrat, District 4, Providence)

Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey (Democrat, District 29, Warwick)
[email protected]

Minority Leader Dennis Algiere (Republican, District 38, Westerly, Charlestown)
[email protected]

Senate Environmental Chair Susan Sosnowski (Democrat, District 37, Block Island, South Kingstown)
[email protected]

Senator Cynthia Armour Coyne (Democrat, District 32, Barrington)
[email protected]

Senator Dawn Euer (Democrat, District 13, Newport, Jamestown)
[email protected]

Senator Stephen Archambault (Democrat, District 22, Smithfield, Johnston, North Providence)
[email protected]

Senator William Conley Jr (Democrat, District 18, East Providence)
[email protected]

Senator Gordon Rogers (Republican, District 21, Coventry, Foster Scituate, West Greenwich)
[email protected]

Senator Bridget Valverde (District 35, North Kingstown, Narragansett)
[email protected]

Senator Roger Picard (Democrat, District 20, Woonsocket)
[email protected]

Senator Ana Quezada (Democrat, District 2, Providence)
[email protected]

Senator Hanna Gallo (Democrat, District 27, Cranston)
[email protected]

Senator Samuel Bell (Democrat, District 5, Providence)
[email protected]

Senator Frank Lombardo (Democrat, District 25, Johnston)
[email protected]

Senator Elaine Morgan (Republican, District 34, Exeter Hopkinton, Richmond, West Greenwich)
[email protected]

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