No environmental viewpoint represented on Senate’s gas and electric transmission infrastructure commission

At least one commission member has a clear history of anti-environmental, pro-fossil fuel bias.

Rhode Island News: No environmental viewpoint represented on Senate’s gas and electric transmission infrastructure commission

December 14, 2020, 6:29 pm

By Steve Ahlquist

In response to the Aquidneck Island gas supply disruption that left thousands of homes without heat during an intense cold spell, Senator Louis DiPalma (Democrat, District 12, Middletown, Little Compton, Newport, Tiverton) introduced legislation to study and evaluate Rhode Island’s electrical and fracked gas transmission and distribution infrastructure. Over a year later, in March of 2020, the commission was to hold its first meeting, but then Covid shut down the State House.

Now, nearly two years after the near disaster that precipitated the commission, Senator DiPalma is holding the first meeting on Monday, December 21 at 10:30am. The meeting will be available to stream live on Capitol TV and, of course, Uprise RI will have video and a complete breakdown of the commission hearing soon after.

“The purpose of this commission is to ensure that Rhode Islanders have a reliable and dependable utility infrastructure” said Senator DiPalma in a press release. “The necessity of heat and electricity is too great to allow the possibility of mass service problems, such as we had on Aquidneck Island almost two years ago, and this commission is tasked with preventing any future crises.”

The original legislation called for the commission to be made up of three Senators, 13 representatives from various state agencies or private corporations, and four members of the public.

The Senators are:

  • Senator Louis DiPalma (Dmeocrat, District 12, Middletown, Little Compton, Newport, Tiverton), chairperson;
  • Senator Dawn Euer (Democrat, District 13, Jamestown, Newport);
  • Senator Jessica de la Cruz (Republican, District 23, North Smithfield, Burrillville, Glocester);

Senator Euer was recently made the Chair of the Senate Committee on Environment and Agriculture. Senator de la Cruz represents Burrillville, the town that recently defeated the building of Invenergy‘s proposed $1b fracked gas and diesel oil burning power plant.

The various state agencies and corporations represented are:

  • Linda George, Rhode Island Division of Public Utilities and Carriers (RIDPUC);
  • Jeffrey Diehl, Rhode Island Infrastructure Bank;
  • Bijay Kumar, Cybersecurity Officer for the Rhode Island Department of Administration;
  • Joe Nicholson, Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns;
  • Terry Sobolewski, National Grid Rhode Island;
  • Gregg Giasson, Providence Water;
  • Jim McCaughey, Narragansett Bay Commission;
  • David Preston, Enbridge Gas;
  • Jeffrey Wright, Block Island Power Company;
  • Michael Kirkwood, Pascoag Utility District;
  • Kathleen Connell, AARP;
  • Ronald Gagnon, RIDEM;

One thing the public might notice when looking at the announced members of the commission is the lack of any environmentalists or members of environmental groups that have expertise in energy transmission, like CLF or the Acadia Center. I asked Senator DiPalma about that.

UpriseRI: There’s nobody on this commission to speak to environmental concerns or environmental impacts.

Senator Louis DiPalma: It wasn’t an oversight that [environmental advocates] weren’t there. The focus, going back to the commission’s charge, which I wrote, is on reliability and resilience… Environmental concerns are a piece of that, but they’re not the crux. We can still account for renewable and environmental concerns, but reliability and resiliency are the charge of the commission.

Uprise: I know that when the Senate Commerce Committee held hearings on the enabling legislation, members on the environmental community testified, in part, about the need for a seat at the table. [Note: Unfortunately, the Senate Commerce Committee does not make recordings of their hearings available to the public. And note also that this bill went through Commerce, not Senate Environmental and Agriculture.]

Senator DiPalma: The environmental piece is something we need to address…

Uprise: Isn’t it weird that we’ve got traditional power suppliers, like National Grid, Enbridge Gas, Pascoag Utility District, Block Island Power Company, and not anybody representing the future of power, like wind and solar suppliers?

Senator DiPalma: Correct… at some point, you can only have so many commissioners. The issue is about transmission and distribution…

Uprise: But to push back on that, can we talk about transmission and distribution without talking about the rapid advancement of behind the meter solar?

Senator DiPalma: We can’t. Absolutely not.

UpriseRI: Who on the commission would be able to speak to that or have an expertise in that beyond National Grid, which it could be argued has a financial stake in not factoring in behind the meter solar?

Senator DiPalma: Folks will present at the commission, from wind, from solar, from other energy suppliers. They won’t be commissioners. They will be invited to be speakers…

Uprise: But the judges, so to speak, the commission members who will be tasked to judge this testimony and compile it all into a final report or make recommendations on legislation or rule making, will not be environmental advocates…

The four members of the commission from the public are:

  • Antonino Ferrera, ACEA International SA; The company also, according to Senator DiPalma, does “utility modernization work.” Ferrera appears to live in Florida.
  • Cornelia Mueller, Community Planning Liaison Officer for Naval Station Newport and Environmental Scientist;
  • William F Horan, Middletown resident and retired electrical engineer;
  • Sarah Atkins is a Community Resilience Specialist in the Newport Department of Planning & Economic Development

In a 2018 letter to the Providence Journal, William “Bill” Horan claimed, without evidence, that Rhode Island’s energy policies “have already resulted in a self-induced energy poverty” and claimed that the “bridge to our energy future that would allow us to keep the lights on is approval and construction of the national gas plant proposed for Burrillville.”

A year later Horan bemoaned the fact that the Energy Facilities Siting Board (EFSB) had rejected the proposed power plant in Burrillville. The rejection was based on the clear evidence that the power plant was not needed, but in his second letter, Horan claimed, without evidence, that “[w]ell-funded, agenda-driven outside detractors came to Rhode Island with their carpetbags in tow to conduct a scorched-earth attack intent on sabotaging the largest privately funded construction project in the history of Rhode Island.”

Horan also claimed in his second letter that “[n]o one was dispatched by the governor to facilitate the [Invenergy] project” even though Governor Gina Raimondo‘s Office of Energy Resources was on hand at every meeting of the EFSB to strenuously advocate for the power plant, despite the Governor’s false claims of neutrality.

Most troubling is Horan’s written testimony to the EFSB concerning the proposed power plant. In his testimony, Horan tried to paint the opposition to the power plant as both external to the Town of Burrillville and also as NIMBYism. “The external cult of politically motivated environment terrorist continue to stoke a local NIMBY victim hood assembly with misinformation and fear,” wrote Horan, dismissing the intelligence and wisdom of local activists as gullible victims of a misinformation campaign.

Horan used many charged words and phrases against opponents of the power plant in his EFSB testimony – radicals, magical thinking, socialism, environmental terrorism, cult – while advocating for fracked gas, so-called “clean coal” technologies and nuclear power.

UpriseRI: What kind of vetting was done that allowed an anti-environmental extremist like William Horan to get on this committee?

Senator DiPalma: Bill’s a member of the public as described in the legislation. I wanted someone to be at the table to speak on the nuclear side, because very rarely do people speak about nuclear energy as an option.

Uprise: But here’s a person on the commission with strong, anti-environmental opinions, and counterfactual conspiratorial beliefs, and no space is given for anyone from the environmental or reality based community.

Senator DiPalma: I hear what you’re saying, but it goes back to the commission charge of being reliable and resilient…

Uprise: But reliable and resilient does not mean anti-environmental.

Senator DiPalma: No it doesn’t.

The first meeting of the commission will include a presentation from Eric Johnson and Kerry Schlichting, from ISO New England. ISO New England is described in the agenda as “an independent, not-for-profit corporation responsible for keeping electricity flowing across the six New England states and ensuring that the region has reliable, competitively priced wholesale electricity today and into the future.”

Uprise RI has questioned ISO New England’s “independence” in the past. See:

The commission will be clerked by Katiuska Perez, out of the Senate Policy office.