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ENVIRONMENT

How will McKee steer Rhode Island on environmental policy?

Addressing climate change is a “moral obligation” and an “economic imperative,” the incoming governor says.

Five wind turbines near Block Island, Rhode Island.
Five wind turbines near Block Island, Rhode Island.Sean D. Elliot/The Day via AP

PROVIDENCE — Under Governor Gina M. Raimondo, the environment was becoming a priority.

While she received criticism from environmental advocates for initially backing a proposed $1-billion fossil fuel-burning power plant in Burrillville that ended up being rejected by state regulators, she supported wind turbine projects and set renewable energy goals. During her tenure, Rhode Island became a founding member of a regional pact aimed at slashing automobile pollution, and she set a goal of meeting all of the state’s electricity demand with renewable energy by 2030.

But in January, President Joe Biden nominated Raimondo for Commerce secretary, and while her successor in Rhode Island — Lieutenant Governor Daniel J. McKee, a fellow Democrat who once ran his family’s heating oil business — has been a clear advocate for small businesses, he has not been vocal about environmental issues.

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The Globe provided McKee’s transition team with six questions about climate change, renewable energy, and other environmental matters. In response, McKee spelled out his general philosophy on those issues but did not answer questions about specific bills or initiatives.

For the incoming governor, small businesses and environmental issues are inextricably linked.

“Addressing climate change isn’t just about the kind of world we leave to our kids and our grandkids, and it isn’t just about protecting the natural resources of Rhode Island for future generations,” McKee responded. “It’s also about our local economy.”

Climate change poses a threat to Rhode Island’s crucial tourism industry and the small businesses that it supports, he said.

“The renewable energy industry will provide many Rhode Islanders with jobs that will allow them to provide for their families,” McKee said. “We must seize the opportunity to foster the industries that will create the jobs that we know will power our state and nation for decades to come. That means we have not just a moral obligation to protect our children and theirs, but also an economic imperative to take action, particularly as the Biden administration rolls out bold environmental policy.”

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McKee did not say where he stands on the Transportation and Climate Initiative, a regional plan Raimondo was interested in joining, which would make fuel suppliers pay for pollution from diesel and gasoline and funnel revenues into electric vehicle charging stations and other clean transportation options.

“Lieutenant Governor McKee looks forward to getting up to speed on this program, including connecting with the other governors involved,” spokeswoman Andrea Palagi said.

Nor did he say whether he supports the Economic and Climate Resilience Act, which would establish a fee on companies that sell fossil fuels in Rhode Island to fund climate resilience, renewable energy, and energy efficiency projects while providing “dividends” to residents and businesses. At November’s Senate Democratic caucus, Senate Majority Leader Michael J. McCaffrey called that bill a priority, saying, “There is no greater threat to our coastal state than climate change.”

McKee also did not say whether he favors legislation, introduced by Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio and passed by the Senate last year, that would prohibit retailers in the state from giving customers single-use plastic bags like those used at supermarkets.

Still, environmental activists reacted positively to McKee’s response to the Globe.

“We absolutely agree that it’s also about jobs,” said Priscilla De La Cruz, president the Environment Council of Rhode Island. “We absolutely know that addressing the climate is more than just about the environment – it’s also about investing in a green economy and seizing the opportunities that come with that transition to clean energy.”

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In a letter sent Jan. 20, the Environment Council — a coalition of 70 environmental groups and individuals — outlined several priorities for the incoming governor, including setting mandatory emission reduction goals, maintaining Rhode Island’s leadership role in the Transportation and Climate Initiative, and committing to 100 percent renewable electricity by 2030, including a significant expansion in offshore wind production.

De La Cruz, who is also Rhode Island director of the Green Energy Consumers Alliance, noted that environmental and union organizations, including the Rhode Island AFL-CIO, have formed a Climate Jobs Rhode Island coalition.

While she appreciates that McKee is facing a public health crisis in the COVID-19 pandemic, De La Cruz said, “We ask that he also centers the climate crisis because that is the other crisis we are dealing with.”

Amy Moses, Rhode Island director of the Conservation Law Foundation, reacted to McKee’s statement, saying, “We are glad he recognizes the critical importance of the climate crisis, and we hope to see concrete actions and specific initiatives in the near term.”

For example, she is hoping McKee backs the Act on Climate bill, which would make emission reductions mandatory. Sponsored by Senate Environment and Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Dawn Euer, the bills aims to get Rhode Island to net-zero emissions by 2050.

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“Addressing the climate crisis is a top priority for Rhode Islanders,” Moses said. “Rhode Island is behind our neighbors in terms of meaningful climate laws to reduce damaging emissions. It’s time we took the lead, ushering in a just transition to a clean energy economy.”

Christopher “Topher” Hamblett, director of advocacy for Save the Bay, agreed with McKee that there are many facets to climate change. “We are Save the Bay, so our lens is primarily environmental,” he said. “But we are keenly aware Narragansett Bay is vital to the Rhode Island economy.”

The Biden administration is looking at climate in a “holistic way,” aiming to protect the environment while also creating new jobs in the renewable energy economy, Hamblett said.

He said Save the Bay is backing a proposed Ocean State Climate and Resilience Fund (OSCAR), which would fund projects to improve the climate resilience of vulnerable coastal habitats and river floodplains. Funding would come in part from a fee of 5 cents per barrel on petroleum products. And he said Save the Bay hopes McKee addresses “the lack of resources” at the state Department of Environmental Management and the Coastal Resources Management Council.

“I think Rhode Island is a shining example of how investments in the environment can lead to economic growth,” Hamblett said.


Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.