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McKee vows to sign R.I. climate bill after it passes overwhelmingly

Governor says attorney general addressed his concerns about allowing citizen legal action to force state to follow the Act on Climate

The Rhode Island State House.Blake Nissen for the Boston Globe

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Governor Daniel J. McKee on Tuesday said he will sign the Act on Climate bill now that it has passed the General Assembly and the attorney general has addressed the governor’s concerns about the legislation.

McKee had made clear that he “strongly supports” the objectives of the Act on Climate bill, which would make the state’s goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions mandatory and enforceable. But he had warned that the state would face “expensive, protracted, and vexatious litigation” if the bill allowed residents, companies, and nonprofits to sue to make the state comply with the law, and he had argued that only the attorney general should be able to sue.


But on Tuesday, Attorney General Peter F. Neronha sent McKee a letter, saying, “Citizens suit provisions, such as the one included in this bill, are not uncommon. In fact, they already exist in notable environmental laws like the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, where they have played an important role in creating protections we have today.”

Neronha said there are safeguards that stop “specious litigation” from going forward. In representing state agencies that are sued, his office has at times succeeded in dismissing meritless claims, and at other times, it has worked on resolutions requiring agencies to meet legal requirements, he said.

“Accordingly, I do not believe that such concerns should undermine or delay passage of this watershed legislation,” he wrote.

Neronha said he supports the legislation and urges its passage. “The Act on Climate Bill signals an important message – that we, collectively as a state, need to take meaningful and sustained action to address climate change,” he wrote.

On Tuesday, the House voted 51 to 21 for the Senate version of the bill, and the Senate voted 28 to 9 for the House version. So both of the companion bills now go to McKee’s desk to be signed into law.


Earlier in the day, three high-profile Democrats who are seen as rivals to McKee in the 2022 gubernatorial race urged him to sign the bill.

Providence Mayor Jorge O. Elorza, who has $887,153 in his campaign account as he eyes the 2022 governor’s race, issued a statement on Tuesday morning, backing the bill and calling for McKee to sign the bill in its current form.

“The City of Providence wholeheartedly supports this legislation and what it means for our community,” Elorza said. “We respectfully encourage both chambers to vote in support and the governor to subsequently sign the 2021 Act on Climate bill unchanged.”

In a letter to a House committee, McKee had said that only the state attorney general should have that power to sue to make the state take action to comply with the law. But Elorza said, “It is on all of us to ensure that the government is held accountable to deliver on the scientific targets needed to tackle the climate crisis.”

Citizen lawsuit provisions are a “common and vital piece” of environmental laws, including the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, Elorza said. “The enforcement provision in this bill empowers constituents and protects the best interests of the public, but also sets limits on the litigation that can be filed against the state,” he said.

Secretary of State Nellie M. Gorbea, who has $415,532 in her campaign account, sent a letter to House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi on Monday, backing the bill.


The Act on Climate would allow Rhode Island to take advantage of federal funding proposed in the American Jobs Plan, Gorbea said. “This legislation is also an important step forward in acknowledging the harmful environmental consequences that have disproportionately affected our state’s most vulnerable communities,” she wrote.

Gorbea said she has “heard concerns” about the bill exposing the state to more lawsuits. But she said, “Meritless litigation is routinely thrown out by our courts with little to no burden on our justice system. If a citizen successfully challenges state action, then the state simply must follow the law.”

General Treasurer Seth Magaziner, who has more than $1 million in his campaign account, on Tuesday said he was an early supporter of the Act on Climate and testified in its favor.

“I support the Act on Climate because we have a tremendous opportunity to create thousands of jobs as we transition to a green economy and protect the state from the impact of climate change at the same time,” he said.

The legislation 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.

The legislation 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. And it makes those targets mandatory, allowing Rhode Island residents, organizations, or the attorney general to file a lawsuit in state Superior Court to enforce provisions of the proposed law.


Senate Minority Whip Jessica de la Cruz, a North Smithfield Republican, opposed the bill, offering a series of amendments that were voted down. She predicted the bill would end up costing homeowners a lot of money, and she argued that lawmakers should have final say over the carbon-reduction plan rather than the Climate Change Coordinating Council.

“We say it is our duty – not unelected bureaucrats in the executive branch,” she said. “Why would delegate so much authority and abrogate our own responsibilities to our constituents?”

Senate Environment and Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Dawn Euer, the Newport Democrat who introduced the Senate version, said, “Rhode Island was the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. We can seize this moment and become America’s leader in the new green economy, creating plentiful green jobs that support families and a clean environment.”

Representative Lauren H. Carson, the Newport Democrat who introduced the House version, said, “The Ocean State, which is already suffering from flooding as a result of rising seas, must be part of the important planning to stop disastrous global warming. Taking these steps will help us demand industrial change, capture federal funding, and help Rhode Island emerge as a world leader in the explosively expanding green economy.”

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