Rhode Island’s six leading candidates for governor all agree that climate change is the most critical environmental problem facing the state.
How they propose dealing with it and other pressing issues — from solar farms to lead pipes and public transportation — is another matter, based on their answers at an Environmental Council of Rhode Island forum Tuesday night.
As they have for most of the 2022 campaign, the candidates — Dan McKee, Nellie Gorbea, Helena Buonanno Foulkes, Matt Brown, Ashley Kalus and Luis Daniel Muñoz — largely avoided challenging one another or even attempting to draw sharp contrasts with their rivals on any issues.
The exception was former Secretary of State Brown, seasoned from his campaign battle with former Gov. Gina Raimondo four years ago, who questioned his fellow Democrats acceptance of donations from lobbyists with fossil fuel clients.
Brown also used the stage to stump for the version of the “Green New Deal” backed by his associates in the Rhode Island Political Cooperative, particularly as it relates to shutting down fossil fuel businesses.
“It is a climate crisis. It is upon us. It is here,” Brown said in what was the first answer of the forum at Rhode Island College. “My climate plan is a Green New Deal that starts with shutting down the fossil fuel industries in the Port of Providence. It’s been poisoning that community for decades. Then we will also build out renewable energy sources, solar and wind, and make Rhode Island the first state that runs on clean renewable energy by 2028.”
Former CVS executive Foulkes said her approach to dealing with climate change starts with “supporting our cities and towns around resiliency plans” for when sea levels rise. She mentioned the town of Warren’s plan to move activities from low-lying areas to higher ground.
She said she would also make sure “there are teeth behind the Act on Climate,” which targets net-zero emissions by 2050 and push a $250 million renewable energy bond.
Kalus, the only Republican on the stage, said communities should follow Barrington’s climate action plan and include “hardening our assets.”
“As we rush toward that new economy we need a governor that is able to balance innovation and entrepreneurship with environmental justice and the realities of climate change,” she said about supporting industries like offshore wind and aquaculture.
Muñoz said climate change is a crisis and “nothing is going to change if we allow cronyism and corruption in government and special interests to dominate the steps that we take forward. We have regulatory agencies and councils with political appointees that need to radically change.”
He said state officials have not listened to fishermen’s concerns about oyster farm leases and that there are unexplored opportunities in kinetic ocean energy and harvesting seaweed.
McKee, as he would do throughout the night, talked about the programs funded and bills passed since he took office last year.
“Over last 16 months my administration has made historic investments and progress to address climate change,” McKee said, citing a bill he signed requiring 100% renewable electricity offsets by 2033 and a procurement for 1,000 kilowatts of offshore wind power. “There hasn’t been a more aggressive governor in the history of the state of Rhode Island, in terms of actually putting forward plans and activating resources.”
Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea said climate change “presents an amazing opportunity for the Ocean State, because it affects everything we are doing right now and government plays an important role leading the way.”
She brought climate change back around to one of her favorite issues, affordable housing.
“We have an older housing stock and we have to make sure that older housing stock is weatherized, more efficient and is moved away from fossil fuels,” she said.
To reduce greenhouse gas emissions, should Rhode Island set an end date for the last sales of new gasoline-powered automobiles like some other states?
Gorbea and Foulkes said they would follow Massachusetts plan to ban gas cars by 2035. Gorbea added that she would work to build more dense housing and more transit-oriented and walkable communities.
Brown said he would ban gas-powered cars by 2030. Muñoz said the state should probably set a date earlier than 2035 because there was likely to be backsliding.
McKee said he needs more information to set an end date.
Kalus said she would not ban gas-powered cars at any date.
“I believe in choice, not mandates,” she said. “If we set a mandate too soon we will create an incentive to leave the state to buy cars.”
Would the candidates support the Environmental Justice Act, which would make it difficult or impossible to build things like incinerators or sewage treatment plants in low income urban neighborhoods?
Kalus: “First I would pursue education reform… You can’t just say environmental justice and separate it from social justice as well. If you don’t have education reform, if you don’t ensure every child has access to quality education no matter what their zip code is, we don’t have any justice at all.”
Munoz: “We need to push back against the fossil fuel industry and the way to do that is through a harm tax. They are not just going to leave.”
Brown: “I support the bill but it doesn’t go nearly far enough. It is not enough to stop new polluting industries from coming into Black and brown communities. We need to stop the ones already there.”
McKee said he has hired more Departmental of Environmental Management staff to enforce anti-pollution laws.
And the Environmental Justice Act? “Yeah, I’m good with it,” he said.
Foulkes said she supports the Environmental Justice Act and called for more trees in urban areas.
All six candidates said they were opposed to allowing pyrolysis plants, which heat plastic waste to turn it into fuel, in Rhode Island.
Brown challenged McKee to return campaign contributions from lobbyist Nick Hemond over the Sea 3 project in Providence and Gorbea from Tonio Burgos over his oil company clients. Both said they wouldn’t.
AUTHOR: Patrick Anderson
August 3, 2022