PROVIDENCE — As a major piece of climate legislation rolls toward passage, Governor Daniel J. McKee is raising concerns about the “Act on Climate” bill, prompting questions about whether he might veto it.
McKee wrote to legislators this week, saying he “strongly supports” the objectives of the bill, which would make the state’s goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions mandatory and enforceable.
But he said he has a “serious concern” about a section that would let Rhode Island residents, companies, and nonprofits sue to make the state take action to comply with the law. He argued that only the attorney general should be allowed to bring such legal action.
The legislation is the top priority for environmental groups in the state, but it has drawn opposition from business groups such as the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce and the Northern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce.
In a letter to a House committee, McKee said that allowing a range of people and groups to sue will “likely lead to expensive, protracted, and vexatious litigation” against the state.
“Such litigation will divert resources and attention from pursuing the primary objective of the bill – the betterment of the state’s environment through the reduction of greenhouse gases,” he wrote.
But environmental advocates say fears of rampant litigation are unfounded and that environmental bills often allow citizens to take legal action.
“Enforcement is the most important aspect of this bill – it means the state is taking this seriously,” said Meg Kerr, senior director of policy for the Audubon Society of Rhode Island. “The attorney general has responsibility for a lot of things, and we need more eyes and ears holding the government accountable.”
The bill would not lead to frivolous lawsuits because it would not allow plaintiffs to collect money awards from the state, Kerr said. Rather, a successful lawsuit would force the state to take the carbon reduction goals seriously and implement the plans meant to reach the targets, she said. The bill would not allow legal action against companies, and those suing would have to provide the state with 60 days notice, giving officials time to comply with the law’s requirements.
The bill sets mandatory goals for the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions: 45 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, 80 percent below those levels by 2040, and at “net-zero emissions” by 2050. It creates a Climate Change Coordinating Council, which includes officials from a range of state agencies, and requires the council to come up with a plan to hit those carbon-reduction targets.
Sue AnderBois, climate and energy program manager for the Nature Conservancy in Rhode Island, said federal environmental laws such as the Clean Air Act allow citizen lawsuits, as does a carbon-reduction law passed in Massachusetts.
“Limiting to the attorney general does not provide the same level of accountability,” she said. “Attorneys general are in charge of many things, and the attorney general changes every four to eight years. It’s important that the citizens of Rhode Island be able to hold their government accountable.”
AnderBois said the state already has a 2014 law that sets targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but those targets are not enforceable. “The enforceability and accountability is the whole point of the bill,” she said.
J. Timmons Roberts, director of the Climate and Development Lab at Brown University, called fears of frivolous lawsuits “a red herring,” saying, “In Massachusetts, exactly one suit was brought over those 13 years, and it was successful because the state was not on track to meet its goal. This is why accountability mechanisms are needed.”
McKee argued that the attorney general’s office already handles a wide variety of environmental responsibilities under state law.
“Any action to enforce the statute must be limited to the attorney general of the State of Rhode Island, as the state’s chief law enforcement officer,” he wrote. “There is no valid reason for deviating from these long-established principles.”
McKee said Rhode Island can achieve the targets set in the bill “by working together, promulgating meaningful rules and regulations which reduce emissions, without putting Rhode Island in unnecessary and unproductive legal jeopardy.”
The Senate passed the Act on Climate bill 33 to 4 on March 16. The House voted 53 to 22 for the bill on March 23. But now each chamber must pass the other’s version of the bill before it goes to McKee’s desk. The Senate is scheduled to vote on the House version of the bill on April 6.
McKee has not said whether he plans to sign or veto the bill. On Thursday, his spokeswoman, Andrea Palagi said, “He strongly supports the environmental goals of the bill regarding the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Right now, he is suggesting that the General Assembly considers empowering the Attorney General’s Office to be the dedicated enforcement body for the statute.”