Sen. Whitehouse backs Burrillville power plant

Activists want to block proposal for $700-million facility powered by fossil fuels

U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse speaks during an interview with Eyewitness News in his Washington office in January 2016.

WASHINGTON (WPRI) – U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse said Thursday he supports plans to build a new gas-fired power plant in Burrillville, despite his longstanding advocacy for policies to tackle climate change.

During an exclusive interview with WPRI.com at his Capitol Hill office, Whitehouse said that while he thinks the world needs to move away from fossil fuels, he views the Burrillville plant as part of the solution to the problem of inadequate natural gas supply in Southern New England.

“Rhode Island and a large part of Southern New England are on the wrong side of a couple of gas pipeline choke points, with the result that at certain times costs soar in Rhode Island because the choke point creates a supply-demand imbalance which causes prices to soar,” Whitehouse said. “And in other states that’s not happening.”

“I don’t think it’s valuable from Rhode Island’s perspective to make Rhode Islanders pay high winter gas prices when it doesn’t change the overall complexion of the gas market,” he continued. “So I am not objecting to that particular plant, because it’s a choke point issue.”

Invenergy LLC has proposed building the new 900-megawatt power plant, which the company has dubbed the Clear River Energy Center. The company says it hopes the $700-million facility will be up and running by the summer of 2019. It is currently seeking approval for the project from the R.I. Energy Facility Siting Board and other government bodies.

Gov. Gina Raimondo supports the proposal, with backers emphasizing natural gas is cleaner than coal. But activists who oppose the plant say it will reinforce the region’s reliance on fossil fuels, and note that it will use oil as a backup fuel source.

Whitehouse said he has sympathy for the goals of the critics. “As a general rule we need to draw down our natural gas, our coal, our oil – all of our fossil fuels,” he said. “I think the people who are objecting to that plant see that and are following that impulse.”

Whitehouse noted that he has been working to draw attention to concerns about methane leaks and fracking as part of his advocacy on climate change. “So I’m trying to both win the climate fight at the level which is I think appropriate – the national level – while at the same time protecting Rhode Islanders from the weird local anomaly in which we pay dramatically higher gas prices than states that surround us,” he said.

Asked whether he’s received any blowback for refusing to oppose the power plant, Whitehouse said: “Some. There’s a small group of people who would like to have me change my position.”

“From the larger environmental movement – the Save the Bays and the League of Conservation Voters and the Nature Conservancies and all that – there’s no blowback whatsoever. They understand the difference between the national and the local concern,” he said.

Whitehouse has emerged in recent years as one of the most outspoken members of Congress when it comes to climate change. Each week he delivers a “Time to Wake Up” speech on the floor of the Senate drawing attention to the issue – 124 of them so far. He said doing the weekly address helps him to stay focused on the problem even as other matters come up.

Asked how he feels about the state of climate policy in the wake of last year’s Paris agreement, Whitehouse said: “Pretty good.” He said a number of Republican senators have privately encouraged him to continue his efforts, saying they want to support him but are concerned about opposition from the fossil fuel industry.

“It’s not just the speech,” he said. “I’m negotiating with my colleagues every minute.”

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He hosts Executive Suite and writes The Saturday Morning Post. Follow him on Twitter: @tednesi

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