Raimondo backs vehicle emissions cap; gas prices could rise 17 cents

Politics

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Do you drive? If so, the fight against climate change could be coming to your doorstep next year.

Several states – including Rhode Island and Massachusetts – plan to finalize a regional agreement in the spring that would essentially ask the transportation sector – and, by proxy, drivers – to pay more toward the effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo, who supports the so-called Transportation and Climate Initiative, or TCI, told WPRI 12 this week the quickly evolving initiative could help create a safer and healthier future for everyone. But she’s upfront about it coming with a cost.  

“We can’t save this planet if we don’t deal with the carbon emissions from cars and trucks on the road,” Raimondo said during a wide-ranging State House interview on Tuesday. “Will there be a tax associated with the transportation climate initiative? Almost certainly.”

The 12 Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states and Washington, D.C., that make up the regional collaborative released a tentative proposal and released a new report this week showing that if TCI is successfully implemented it could reduce transportation-related emissions by 25% between 2022 and 2032.

As a result, gas prices would increase by 17 cents per gallon, according to the report.

“I don’t want to burden Rhode Islanders. We need to save the planet,” Raimondo said.   

The proposed transportation emissions cap-and-trade system is modeled after the fossil-fuel program called Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, or RGGI, which Rhode Island has participated in since 2007. The states now have until April to decide whether to sign on to the final agreement.

TCI would cap the amount of emissions gas and diesel companies could emit each year and create a market for industry members to buy and trade emission allowances.

Companies with excess allowances could sell to businesses that need them in an auction, and the trading would raise money for states to invest in carbon-cutting transportation projects, such as electric vehicles vouchers and better public transportation.

R.I. Department of Environmental Management deputy director of environmental protection Terrence Gray estimates TCI could generate between $20 million and $25 million a year for Rhode Island. By comparison, Massachusetts Competitive Partnership CEO Jay Ash recently estimated it could bring in $500 million annually for the Bay State.

The limit on allowable emissions along with the influx of new money to invest in transportation-related projects in theory would cut emissions coming from the Rhode Island transportation sector, which was responsible for 36% of greenhouse gas emissions in 2016, according to DEM.  

The initiative could help the state accomplish some lofty carbon-cutting goals it set under the Chafee administration in 2014. Environmentalists have warned the state is already falling behind.

“The key thing is how we invest the proceeds,” Gray said. “Anything that reduces emissions from the transportation sector is a good investment.”

But the new system is expected to cost gas companies more money to comply, which would likely be passed on to consumers at the pump – thus the projected 17 cents per gallon price hike.

The plan has the support of public officials across the region, but a group of fiscally conservative organizations from various states – including the R.I. Center for Freedom & Prosperity – have come out in strong opposition, calling TCI nothing more than a gas tax.  

The group argues the initiative would hurt consumers and put the region at a competitive disadvantage with other parts of the nation where the cost of doing business is less expensive.

“Hard-working Rhode Islanders should not be purposefully punished for driving their kids to school, going to work, visiting family, going shopping, or delivering goods and services,” CEO Mike Stenhouse said in a statement.

The group threatened potential legal challenges if the initiative moves forward.

The Rhode Island Trucking Association has also raised concerns about TCI, calling on Raimondo to engage the business community in weighing the benefits of the program.

“Before we turn the world upside down and forever change our way of life, the true cost-benefit of this program needs to be fully vetted,” said Chris Maxwell in a statement.

Advocates – including the powerful Massachusetts Municipal Association as well as a number of Bay State business groups – meanwhile argue the program is imperative to fighting climate change and improving transportation. The latter is one of the most thorny issues in a state that’s clogged with gridlock.

“Transportation and global warming are clearly linked and developing policies that simultaneously reduce the climate change threat and improve our transportation systems is a common-sense course of action,” George Beckwith, the municipal group’s CEO, wrote on the association’s website.

Advocates often point to the success of RGGI as proof TCI could work effectively across the region.

RGGI has worked relatively well over the years from a revenue perspective, raising nearly $60 million for Rhode Island to invest in clean-energy projects between 2008 and 2017. But there’s some criticism of whether it’s worked effectively as a carbon-cutting tool.

“From a practical standpoint, the RGGI program’s contribution to directly reducing the global accumulation of GHG emissions in the atmosphere is arguably negligible,” wrote researchers of the nonpartisan U.S. Congressional Research Service in a recently updated report about RGGI.

Power generators that participate in RGGI have benefited from an influx of natural gas, which burns much cleaner than dirtier fuels such as coal. The cleaner energy has contributed to an organic decline in greenhouse gas emissions that’s happened concurrently to the implementation of RGGI.

For transportation, which represents a larger source of emissions than power plants, TCI advocates hope electric vehicles and greater access to cleaner technology will likewise spur a decline in transportation emissions.

In a hypothetical “business as usual” scenario, meaning no changes are made, TCI researchers estimate transportation emissions regionally would fall between 6% and 19%, depending on oil prices and federal regulations on vehicle standards.

“The decline is largely the result of improving vehicle efficiency and greenhouse gas emission standards and a shift away from internal combustion engines and toward zero emission vehicles,” researchers wrote.

The group is nonetheless bullish on the new system’s chances of improving the environment, reducing emissions and expanding cleaner transportation options across the region.

Interested people and organizations are urged to provide feedback through the coalition’s online portal, which will be closed on Feb 28. The TCI states will then work toward finalizing the agreement by spring with the ultimate goal of drumming up legislative support in 2021 and beginning the initiative in 2022.

To get there, the administration will need to convince lawmakers it’s a good idea, and leadership of the General Assembly at this point are not ready to back it.

“I do not support raising the gas tax, which is already higher than most New England states,” said House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, a Cranston Democrat. “We’re not going to put a more onerous burden on hard-working Rhode Islanders who need their vehicles to get to work. Our gas tax is indexed to inflation and it is used to help fund our critical transportation and transit needs.”

Rhode Island’s gas tax last year totaled 34 cents per gallon, which was the second highest in New England after only Connecticut (43.5 cents per gallon), according to the American Petroleum Institute.

Senate President Dominick Ruggerio was not immediately available for comment, but his spokesperson Greg Pare said his position is that he’s willing to listen to arguments, but maintains it must require legislative approval.

Raimondo, nonetheless, is steadfast the action is needed.

“I have resisted raising taxes on Rhode Islanders every year I’ve been governor. And you can rest assured I’ll do everything I can to avoid any broad-based tax increases,” Raimondo said. “But we do need to get real and find some solutions to climate change.”

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.

Kim Kalunian contributed to this report.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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