Gov. Gina Raimondo renews push for utilities bill as Newport legislators vow to review denied claims
By Sean Flynn Daily News staff writer
NEWPORT – Gov. Gina Raimondo kicked off on Tuesday a second major push for legislation to hold National Grid accountable in the wake of emergency outages like the natural gas crisis that left 7,455 customers without heat in Newport and Middletown for a week last January, beginning on the coldest day of the year.
Raimondo and Lt. Gov. Daniel McKee advocated for passage of the bill in this year’s session of the General Assembly that would have mirrored similar legislation in effect in Massachusetts and New York, both states served by National Grid, but got nowhere.
Vowing not to allow that to happen again if she can help it, Raimondo met privately with the area’s legislative delegation, Newport Mayor Jamie Bova and Portsmouth Town Administrator Rich Rainer at Gurney’s Resort on Goat Island.
Raimondo and state senators Dawn Euer, D-Newport, Louis DiPalma, D-Middletown, and James Seveney, D-Portsmouth, as well as state representatives Marvin Abney, D-Newport, Deborah Ruggiero, D-Middletown and Jamestown, Terri Cortvriend, D-Middletown and Portsmouth, and Susan R. Donovan, D-Portsmouth and Bristol, then took questions from the media.
The room was tense when the legislators were asked why the bill never even came to a vote in either the Senate or the House of Representatives this year.
“Now we have a document that we can work from and plan from,” answered Abney, who is chairman of the House Finance Committee and wields some power among his colleagues.
“There was no underlying report,” he said. “We would have been guessing or working from a best guess.
Senators DiPalma and Euer gave similar responses on why the Senate did not act.
They were referring to the report issued last Wednesday by the state Division of Public Utilities and Carriers that determined the outage was caused by the failure of the National Grid-owned Liquid Natural Gas facility in Providence on Jan. 21, a valve failure in Weymouth, Massachusetts, on the main Algonquin gas line on the same day, the 2010 removal of LNG facilities on Aquidneck Island, and near record low temperatures causing record demand on the system on that day.
Despite these failures by the utility companies, Raimondo said there is in no law in Rhode Island with enough teeth to force National Grid to take the steps needed to reduce the chances of such an outage happening again.
The report found one instance of a violation for which the Division of Public Utilities and Carriers could levy a fine: “failure to provide a telephonic notification to the division of the emergency shutdown of an LNG facility.”
The division “will issue a notice of probable violation” with “a fine of $39,000″ to National Grid, according to the report.
Raimondo was decidedly unimpressed by the impact of that fine.
Under the bill she and McKee proposed in February, if the state determined the company violated “any of the prescribed standards of acceptable performance,” it shall impose a fine of $100,000 for each day the violation persists, with a maximum penalty of $7.5 million per incident.
“Those fines mirror the laws already in effect in Massachusetts and New York,” Raimondo said.
“If there is an emergency gas crisis in Rhode Island and Massachusetts at the same time, the National Grid trucks will be heading there because they know what they can be fined,” she said.
“Give Rhode Island the same tools the other states have,” she told the state legislators.
Under the bill she and McKee proposed, National Grid would be required to annually submit to the Division of Public Utilities and Carriers an emergency response plan. The mandated plan would include a system for communicating with customers and procedures, the individuals responsible for communicating with local and state authorities, and an explanation of how the company would restore service.
Failure to file the plan and act on it once filed would lead to the substantial fines.
The governors and legislators were in agreement with the DPUC report recommendation that more than $25 million in costs incurred by National Grid as a result of the outage be carried by shareholders of National Grid, the distributor of natural gas in the state, and Enbridge, the company that owns the Algonquin Gas lines that transmit gas to Rhode Island.
However, they said that $25 million figure does not include the costs of multiple claims filed by Newport and Middletown residents and businesses that were denied.
Raimondo said she would work with the legislators to compile a comprehensive list of all those denied claims and follow up where they appear to be justified. She was not sure what power the state has to require National Grid to pay the claims.
Euer said she already has a list of some denied claims and plans to put online a Google doc that will allow others to list their denied claims. Bova said she also has a list.
“We have to make residents and businesses whole,” Euer said.
DiPalma filed a bill in February to create a legislative commission to oversee a comprehensive evaluation of the state’s natural gas and electricity transmission and distribution infrastructure. That bill was approved by the Senate, but not the House. He said he would refile that bill as well.
DiPalma said he specifically wants to know why Algonquin, when its parent company was still the Houston based Spectra Energy, abandoned a plan first announced in 2013 to expand the natural gas flow to Aquidneck Island.
“National Grid is taking some temporary measures now, but we still have a long-term capacity problem,” he said.
The General Assembly will convene its 2020 session in early January and the session typically continues until at least late June when a state budget is passed.
Raimondo said she would re-file the administration’s legislation to hold National Grid accountable in January or February, after working with legislators to make any changes they wish. If it were Jan. 21, it would be the one-year anniversary of the beginning of the outage.
“I’m going to be working hard to make sure it passes,” Euer said.
Link to article newportri.com