By Guy Page
The Dec.11 Rutland Herald editorial “Classic Conundrum” asks whether Vermont should tax fossil fuels as “the best, most effective way to limit greenhouse gas emissions” or pass because it’s “a tough sell,” especially among low-income rural Vermonters. This kind of win/lose thinking begs for a more positive approach.
The question seems to assume that for the climate to win, the rural poor must lose. Tough luck indeed for people living in older homes and driving long commutes in all-wheel drive cars and trucks that sacrifice good gas mileage for safe driving on narrow town highways. The policy goal of carbon pricing is to drive Vermonters like sheep to use less fossil fuels by making it harder to stay warm and get to work.
I believe human activity is warming the climate. I believe Vermonters would prefer to do our bit for greenhouse gas reduction without punishing the rural poor. Carbon taxation, even the supposedly poor-friendly version, is regressive, unjust, impractical, and in a voting society, unsustainable. Just look at France — how’s that working out for you, Emmanuel Macron?
Vermont can reduce energy-related emissions and enhance prosperity. To name just four examples of having it both ways, we can support existing regional nuclear power, buy more hydro power from Quebec, slow expansion of instate solar/wind generation and utility-scale expensive battery storage, and grow more trees.
The 2019 Vermont Legislature could endorse Gov. Phil Scott’s August 2018 support (with four other governors) of nuclear power as an affordable, emissions-free source of regional energy security. In 2017 Millstone in Connecticut and Seabrook in New Hampshire generated 26,000 giga-watt hours of electricity – four times the 6,500 giga-watt hours for all New England grid-tied solar and wind power combined. Yet nuclear power is at risk because natural gas can make power even more cheaply. But natural gas supply is finite, especially when more is needed to keep homes warm during cold snaps. Nuclear is New England’s best environmental and economic alternative to dirty, expensive “backup” coal and oil-fired electricity. Grid operator ISO-New England is deciding now which fuels best suit future energy security needs. Legislators may either promote nuclear power or accept responsibility for higher energy costs, carbon emissions and (more likely to occur) blackouts.
Second, Vermont can rethink its fixation on localvore electricity and buy more low-cost, low-carbon hydro power from Quebec. This may require a new high-voltage transmission line directly from Quebec, or through another state.
Third, Vermont can refuse to keep bidding up the bad poker hand it has been dealt by the backers of distributed renewable power. Utilities want to “double down” on expensive instate intermittent solar/wind power and charge more for even more expensive “back up” battery storage. Fortunately, utility rate hikes require Vermont Public Utilities Commission. Until battery storage technology becomes a card worth playing, regulators should resist upping the ante.
Fourth, rather than spend money storing electricity in more batteries, Vermont should make money by storing carbon in more trees. Trees eat carbon and turn it into oxygen. They have financial value for “carbon storage,” as the Nature Conservancy discovered in July when it reaped up to $2 million over 10 years by selling the carbon credits from 11,000 acres on Burnt Mountain in the Northeast Kingdom to the climate conscious prone State of California.
It just so happens that many cash-poor rural Vermonters are tree-rich. Some enviro-entrepreneur could do well by doing good by turning the Back Forty’s carbon-eating value into cash for thousands of Vermont homeowners. Vermont could become a state where money grows on trees. And because young, growing trees (like people) need to eat more than their elders, carbon-credit forestry could actually favor acreage under active harvesting and replanting. To paraphrase Sarah Palin: Plant, baby, plant!
These are just four ideas. Rather than impose a Macron-like carbon tax, the state of Vermont should pursue low-carbon prosperity. For starters, the Legislature and Vermont media might ask Vermonters, what’s a better way to reduce carbon than taxing Vermonters? There’s still time, before the Yellow Vests start appearing in the Vermont State House.
Guy Page is affiliated with the Vermont Energy Partnership; the Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare; and Physicians, Families and Friends for a Better Vermont.