PROVIDENCE — State Sen. Frank Lombardo III says using a high-heat process called pyrolysis to break down plastic garbage into oils, tar and gases that can be burned or repurposed into other consumer products is one answer to society’s trash problem.
“We’re faced with an option, a technology that we have available to us today,”.the Johnston Democrat told his colleagues while speaking on the Senate floor Tuesday about his legislation that could boost use of the process. “I believe it is in the best interest and the best solution for our environment to recycle our plastics given the options that we’re faced with.”
Sen. Samuel Bell says the bill amounts to deregulation for a relatively new technology. The measure would exempt plastic pyrolysis plants from state solid waste regulations and ease the permitting process for such facilities. They are the same rules that were used last year to kill a controversial medical waste processing plant that would also have used pyrolysis.
“These are important regulations. There are important things we lose around licensing, siting, permitting,” the Providence Democrat said. “You can be for pyrolysis and not think this level of deregulation is a good idea.”
The lawmakers were on two sides of the debate around a bill that has gotten a lot of attention in the state’s environmental community in the closing weeks of the General Assembly session, with groups like the Conservation Law Foundation and Clean Water Action rallying against it over pollution and other concerns. The state Department of Environmental Management is also opposed.
The legislation won passage, but the vote was close, with 19 senators in favor, 14 against and five absent. A House version is awaiting a committee hearing.
It’s one of a number of bills on the environment that are moving forward as the legislative session nears an end.
Also during Tuesday’s floor votes, the Senate unanimously approved legislation that would increase Rhode Island’s reliance on offshore wind power. The state already uses 30 megawatts of capacity from the nation’s first offshore wind farm near Block Island and another 400 megawatts is set to come from a much bigger project that has won federal approval in Rhode Island Sound.
The current bill would require Rhode Island Energy, the new name that PPL gave the utility that supplies power to most of the state, to solicit bids for another 600 megawatts of capacity.
The procurement would put the state further down the path to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, as required by last year’s Act on Climate.
It’s also key to reaching a goal set by former Gov. Gina Raimondo of getting all of Rhode Island’s electricity from renewable sources by 2030.
Although the goal is yet to be enshrined in state law, that would change under legislation that passed the Senate last week and won committee approval in the House on Wednesday afternoon. The bill would require electric suppliers to gradually ramp up their use of renewables, ultimately getting to the 100% target by the end of this decade.
The bill, which got through the House Committee on Environment and Natural Resources, would update the state’s Renewable Energy Standard, the main law that guides renewables usage. It would use renewable energy certificates, market-based instruments that account for the environmental benefits of solar, wind and the like, to measure supplies.
Because the certificates are sold separately from actual energy, the bill won’t mean the end of fossil fuel-burning power plants in Rhode Island or the region. But the certificates would offset usage from dirtier sources and support the development of renewable projects.
Plastic bag ban
The House environment committee also approved a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags that has been in the works for years but has never gotten to the governor’s desk.
While environmental groups have come out in support of that bill as an effective way of reducing plastic trash, they haven’t taken the same position on what Lombardo’s bill calls “advanced recycling.”
Critics say pyrolysis could result in air and water pollution. They also argue that the energy needed to power a plant, which would at least initially come from natural gas, isn’t consistent with the state’s policy goal of reducing carbon emissions.
The bill does set out restrictions on where plastics processing plants can be built. They must be located in a port facility or industrial zone. Those places cannot abut residential areas or so-called environmental justice areas – neighborhoods like Washington Park that disproportionately suffer the impacts of pollution.
But Sen. Tiara Mack, a Providence Democrat whose district includes the Port of Providence, said the protections in the bill go only so far. As it stands, state law has no definition for environmental justice areas. The Senate passed legislation in March that would amend the law, but the House has yet to take up the measure.
“So there is no authentic protection for these communities,” Mack said.
She and others who opposed the bill acknowledged that society has a problem with plastic trash, but they said there are still too many questions about pyrolysis.
“The answer to all the plastic is to not be using plastic in the first place,” said Sen. Jeanine Calkin, a Warwick Democrat.