After a fittingly stormy Tuesday morning, Governor Gina Raimondo announced a controversial plan at the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce to open a natural gas power plant in Burriville amid environmental protests and citizen complaints.
The plant, called the Clear River Energy Center, would utilize fracking to generate energy with natural gas. Fracking is a process that involves drilling into the earth, and then shooting a high-pressure water mixture at the rock to release the natural gas inside. Environmentalists have opposed the practice for a number of reasons. First, the process uses huge amounts of water that must be transported to the site. Second, many worry that dangerous chemicals used in the process may contaminate groundwater around the site. There are also concerns that fracking causes small earthquakes.
The company that is sponsoring and privately funding the $700 million project, Invenergy, says that the practice is clean and environmentally friendly because the new plant will prevent older, less efficient plants from emitting pollutants like carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and sulphur oxides into the air.
Invenergy has predicted $280 million in energy savings for Rhode Islanders once the energy center is up and running. There would be an overall economic impact of $1.3 billion between 2016 and 2034. Roughly 300 construction jobs would be added to the state’s workforce to build the facility, over a 30 month time period. There would also be 25-30 permanent, skilled positions to actually run the center.
“The construction of this clean energy generation facility will create hundreds of jobs while delivering more affordable and reliable energy to our businesses and homes,” Governor Raimondo said. “We are tackling our regional energy challenges, committing to cleaner energy systems in the long-term, and putting Rhode Islanders back to work.”
Even with this promise of clean energy, there are still many staunch opponents to the proposed facility. Fighting Against Natural Gas, or FANG, held an emergency rally in front of the Chamber of Commerce as Governor Raimondo unveiled her plan. Some even believed the facility to be a “rape” of Burriville’s air, water, and soil.
Robert Malin from Rhode Island’s chapter of the Sierra Club attended the protest, in opposition to the proposed facility. Malin believes that the government has been less than forthcoming with details for the project, and shouldn’t be trusted.
“The Governor has been saying that she doesn’t know anything about gas or fracking, and that this whole thing is just one little expansion that they’re doing, and by the way, we don’t have any money to build out the renewables, it’s a wish. Maybe in 20 years we’ll get around to actually doing it,” he said. “Then the next thing you know, they can dig into their pockets, they can pull out $700 million, and this thing that they’re planning, had to be planned in advance. They kept this whole thing under the table. Why wasn’t the public able to decide whether we want an explosive power plant building, bringing fracked gas, a deadly practice that was outlawed in New York state, that’s what we’re bringing.”
Malin explained that even though many don’t consider natural gas a fossil fuel, believing it lacks a carbon footprint, the energy source actually leaves what he called a “ghost footprint,” and still contributes to global warming.
“You’re trying to track a colorless, odorless gas,” he said. “Unfortunately, when it gets into the atmosphere, it’s called an accelerant to global warming. So, if you can imagine, you’ve got a big wood fire, and you take some gasoline and throw it on the fire. It flares up really quick. So if you’re not right there when you’re measuring it, when it flares up, then it’s very hard to track. The bad new is that it has the same carbon footprint as other fossil fuels, like coal and oil when it’s done.”
Stephen Dahl, from Fossil Free Rhode Island, said that Raimondo’s plan is short term, and that there are better options and avenues for the state to undertake.
“I think that is a very short gain that they are playing. In the short term, we’ll have jobs. For the longer term, if we follow countries like Germany and Scandinavia, and their mix of energies, in which we can build a transition to 100 percent wind, water, and solar for all purposes, both residential and commercial, here in Rhode Island, by 2050,” he said. “I understand that she has a limited term in office, and she wants to get something done. The way she’s chosen forward, though, is unfortunately, that short-term prospect, which will bring us more catastrophes. So, I object to it.”
Raimondo, and Invenergy’s Founder and CEO Michael Polsky both insisted that fracking, in combination with renewable energy sources, is only one of many puzzle pieces that can be put together to help slow climate change. According to Invenergy, the Clear River Energy Center will add more than 900 megawatts of new, cleaner energy to the regional energy grid, and will displace older, less efficient plants. It will also invest in well treatment and system upgrades, which will benefit 1,200 Pascoag Utility District water customers by contracting on a long-term basis for industrial water supply. Commercial benefits for the town of Burriville include millions of dollars in tax revenue, as well as the reduction of the property tax burden for homeowners.
Once approved, the Clear River Energy Center will begin construction in 2016, with operations scheduled to begin by summer 2019.