In his State of the State address, Gov. Dan McKee pledged millions of dollars to “[step] up efforts to combat climate change.”
Those millions will come almost exclusively from the federal government.
The biggest ticket climate change initiative McKee is proposing is $95 million to prepare the Port of Davisville in Quonset and the South Quay Marine Terminal in East Providence to work on offshore wind construction. Administration officials say that money will come from the American Rescue Plan Act.
A new $37 million heat pump incentive program is also being paid for with ARPA funds. And the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will put $23 million towards construction of electric vehicle charging stations.
At a press conference Wednesday, McKee defended the decision not to use general revenue for climate initiatives, saying, “we’re going to spend what’s available and make it work to the best of our ability, leverage that as far as we can, and then let’s see where we end up.”
“A lot of these are infrastructure investments, so obviously that infrastructure is going to continue to live on,” commented Terry Gray, acting director of the Department of Environmental Management. “It’s not going to solve our climate problems. It’s not going to get us to full compliance with the Act on Climate. But it’s a huge step in the right direction.”
The Act on Climate requires the state to cut greenhouse gas emissions to 45% of 1990 levels by 2030, and reach net-zero emissions by 2050.
Gray also leads the state’s executive climate change coordinating council, which is charged with meeting those mandates. McKee’s budget would allocate $6 million to the EC4, which previously has operated without any dedicated funding or staff. That funding would come out of an energy efficiency incentive program. That’s a strategy environmental advocates question.
“We can’t solve the climate crisis by robbing Peter to pay Paul,” said Hank Webster, director of Acadia Center in Rhode Island. “We need to do it all and it needs to be supplemental investments, not scoops.”
Webster named several priorities that were not included in the budget announcement, including that the state resurrect its electric vehicle incentive program, and invest in solar energy and battery storage. He also noted that McKee has pledged significant investment in affordable housing, and said the administration should require that housing be energy efficient and heated with electric heat pumps.
“There’s a lot more work to do,” said Priscilla De La Cruz, director of government affairs for the Audubon Society of Rhode Island.
But she said, “it’s promising and exciting all around to see the focus around climate. And I think it also really aligns with where Rhode Islanders are. We know that the vast majority of Rhode Islanders do support the state taking action on climate change.”
De La Cruz, who also leads the Environmental Council of Rhode Island and Climate Jobs RI, said that environmental advocates are eager to see the complete budget proposal.
“In a nutshell, [I’m] encouraged by this step. But we’re definitely looking for details and to see if it’s enough to get us where we need to go in terms of putting us on that path to meeting the Act on Climate goals.”
McKee is also proposing a bond that would include $16 million for the Municipal Resilience Program, $5 million clean energy loans for small businesses, and $3 million for forest conservation programs.
And he announced that his administration plans to use federal ARPA funds to speed up work on over a hundred road and bridge construction projects, by an average of four years.