This Tuesday, on a cold November evening, approximately fifty Rhode Island residents packed into the Administration Building cafeteria at One Capitol Hill in Providence. Some held signs emblazoned with slogans such as “67% of Rhode Island Children at Risk”, “Frack No!” and “No LNG for Me”. Members of the press mingled around the room with cameras, while four state troopers stood at each of the exits. The occasion? A Rhode Island Costal Resources Management Council (CRMC) special hearing regarding the construction of a $180 million natural gas liquefaction facility. The project would be on behalf of National Grid, the UK-based utilities company and would be built at an existing LNG storage facility at Fields Point in South Providence.
The hearing began with opening remarks from CRMC executive director Grover Fugate who reminded the council and audience of the relatively narrow mandate of the CRMC. As Fugate noted, the CRMC is not tasked with approving or rejecting the project, a goal which is left with the Federal Regulatory Energy Commission (FERC), but was instead being asked to simply determine if the proposed facility complies with costal building regulations that take factors including set-backs and sea level-rise into consideration. Nevertheless, the CRMC’s opinion on the matter is considered an important influence on FERC’s ultimate decision. The technical question faced by the council was a request for a variance to construct the necessary liquefaction facility less than 50 feet from the shoreline of the Providence River.
In many ways, the hearing was a testament to the strength of small-scale democracy here in Providence. The late Yale political theorist Robert Dahl contended that functioning democracy required all members of society have an outlet through which to make clear their preferences and desires to the government. Furthermore, Dahl argued, citizens’ preferences must be afforded equal weight in expressing their preferences. Both the format and discourse of Tuesday’s meeting seemed to take these values to heart.
Not only where a handful of translation services (Spanish, Portuguese, Cape Verdean Creole, Khmer and ASL) available to insure participation of all possible attendees, but chairwoman Jennifer Cervenka made a point to compel the audience to treat speakers with respect and avoid speaking out of turn.
The hearing began with testimony from National Grid’s two main witnesses: Tony Larusso, a senior project director with the company, and Matt Page, a civil engineer with a Providence-based environmental consulting firm. Mr. Larusso’s testimony focused mainly on establishing the reasons National Grid felt the construction of a liquefaction facility was necessary: mainly the unpredictability of foreign imports from places like Yemen, as well the space saving capabilities that would be generated in liquid form. Mr. Page’s argument centered on addressing the CRMC’s goals and criteria, attempting to show how the project was in line with council standards.
A partial summary of CRMC criteria for the variance permit and Mr. Page’s responses to each:
- Will the project cause significant environmental impact?
No. There is no vegetation or animal life in the embankment area, it is just stone. Project will include a sewer system to treat storm water run-off from site before it reenters river.
- Is applicant asking for minimum variance required?
Yes. Only asking for 35 out of the maximum 50 feet.
Will there be undo hardship suffered by the applicant without the project?
Yes. There is no other site where National Grid could build such facility. Its proximity to the existing storage tank is essential.
- Will the project have an adverse impact on items of historical or archeological influence?
No. We have been cleared by the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission
- Will the project have scenic impacts?
It will fit in with the already industrial nature of the site.
One, and perhaps the only, noticeable concern with National Grid’s testimony was its length––about an hour and thirty minutes. It appeared that roughly 25 percent of the original audience had left by the time the hearing turned to public comment. Perhaps boredom was being used as a tactic to stymie opposition?
Nevertheless there were a number of views expressed in the public comment. The president of the Providence Chamber of Commerce voiced his support of the project citing temporary construction jobs. Another man passionately argued that FERC itself is corrupt, having never turned down a project (something I later found out to be false) and that it was up to the CRMC to send a message to federal regulators.
Another, who admitted to being a National Grid customer, said he was originally unsure of his position, but after doing some independent research he was in favor of the project do to unpredictability of LNG supplies from abroad and what he saw as sound safety practices in place. His speech received a number of heckles, with one audience member shouting: “you much be from the East Side!” showing the ways in which notions of social class have imbued themselves into the debate.
The issue of class as a major factor in the contestation of the project was underscored again by a mother who lived a quarter mile from the site in what she described as a low income, non-white community. She noted that her neighborhood was an asthma hotspot and that her son had recently been hospitalized from a severe attack. Building the liquefaction facility, she argued, would worsen the problem affecting an already impoverished and forgotten neighborhood. “People on the South Side are human too,” she concluded.
After the meeting, I spoke on the phone with Tim Duane, an environmental policy expert at the University of California Santa Cruz. “I would have serious concerns about the construction of an LNG liquefaction facility in any community,” he remarked. That being said, Duane also noted that he would be more worried about the environmental and health implications of a catastrophic containment issue, which would affect the entire city, rather than the adverse affects of routine daily operation. One of my main takeaways from the hearing was that National Grid’s argument for the permit seems to ignore the adverse consequences it would have on the adjacent South Providence and Washington Park neighborhoods. Indeed, an independent study by Massachusetts Healthcare Providers Against Fracked Gas showed that an LNG plant could increase child asthma rates by up to 10% in nearby communities.
Some have labeled the project an example of “environmental racism”. While I do not necessarily buy into notion that race is a predominantly motivating factor, I do believe that the low-income status of adjacent residents has made it easier for the proposed project to gain traction. In The Unheavenly Chorus: Unequal Political Voice and the Broken Promise of American Democracy, scholars Henry Brady and Lehman Schlozman causally demonstrate that poorer Americans are not only less likely to participate in the political process, but are also less likely to have their positions supported by government officials when they do participate. Thus, it is largely safe to say considerations for such project would never gain traction on Providence’s affluent East Side, where marinas and paths take the place of oil tankers. Thus an interesting duality appears to have arisen: while the structure and format of the CRMC hearing itself was essentially as democratic as possible, the larger context in which the issue of the LNG plant is framed seems to inherently disadvantage one group in the other, amounting to what appears to be a breakdown in democracy. This speaks to the reality in U.S. politics that even the existence of healthy and functioning democratic institutions (in this case, the CRMC hearing), the playing field often remains far from being equal. While I have not yet taken a full position on the issue at hand, I would nonetheless urge both the CRMC and FERC to take Brady and Schlozman’s findings into consideration as they craft their own decision on the matter.
* Photo by Canadians.org. “NanaimoLNG”. Creative Commons Attribution 2.0