Statehouse Headliners: ‘Stealth’ carbon tax facts published, Ashe approves

By Guy Page

More details have emerged about a planned “stealth” carbon tax on the cost of gasoline and diesel fuel for Vermont drivers.

The Transportation & Climate Initiative (TCI) is a multi-state, regional “cap and trade” plan that would likely  increase the retail cost of Vermont gasoline and diesel fuel, as reported in August by Headliners.

Vermont state officials have been on the ground floor planning the TCI since its inception in 2010. If Vermont adopts the finished TCI plan next year, Vermont vehicle fuel dealers would be financially penalized for sales that exceed an emissions “cap,” according to an Oct. 1 draft plan. The cap would shrink every year. Fuel dealers could avoid penalties by buying “allowances” at an auction, but the effect would be the same: fuel dealers faced with new, government-inspired costs would pass them along to consumers at the pump. The revenue would go to the state for renewable, low-carbon transportation programs.

Guy Page

In practice, the TCI is a “stealth” carbon tax because it would raise the cost of gasoline for all Vermonters and would give climate activists in the Vermont Legislature the carbon emissions revenue they seek — all without actually having to vote on the record for a carbon tax. The TCI, begun in 2010 with Vermont as a charter member, has gone almost unnoticed by the Vermont press, at least compared to its coverage on specific carbon tax legislation. A lengthy Oct. 2 VT Digger article on Vermont climate initiatives gave it two paragraphs. An Oct. 3 WCAX report mentioned its name but offered no details.

The TCI was applauded Friday by Vermont Senate Pro Tem Tim Ashe (D/P – Chittenden) on Twitter after the latest details were announced:

“VT’s emissions from cars and trucks are our biggest source of climate change-causing emissions,” Ashe announced Oct. 4 on Twitter. “That’s why I find TCI so promising. Joining forces with the states on this map on an agreement to reduce transportation emissions amplifies the benefit to the planet we can achieve.”

TCI planning has been in the works for several years. The final proposal is due to be published in December. Public comment is still being accepted. Here’s the timeline for rolling out the TCI, according to its website:

  • October/November 2019 – State leaders gather and consider public input on framework.
  • December 2019 – Release of a regional policy proposal in the form of a draft Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), accompanied by modeling results that estimate the energy and emissions implications of different cap levels and investment scenarios, as well as potential costs and benefits of different program design options.
  • January/February 2020 – Gather and consider public input on Draft MOU
  • Spring 2020 – Jurisdictions (states) release a final Memorandum of Understanding. At this point, each jurisdiction will decide whether to sign the MOU and participate in the regional program.
  • Spring – Fall 2020 – Participating jurisdictions develop a “model rule” and take any legislative steps that could be needed to implement the regional program.
  • 2021 – Jurisdictions conduct rulemaking process to adopt regulations.
  • As early as 2022 – Program implementation begins.

The Vermont Legislature could review and endorse the proposed TCI as soon as next year’s session. The biggest “unknown” is Gov. Phil Scott. He has allowed his senior environmental staff to participate in the planning process, but has refused to approve or reject it until he sees how it would affect Vermont. Scott has maintained since his first campaign in 2016 that he will veto a carbon tax.

The TCI framework doesn’t speculate how much more Vermonters will pay at the pump per gallon. California’s new transportation cap-and-trade program is expected to add 36 cents/gallon by 2030 and rise from there — and that’s on top of an actual carbon tax, the Sacramento Bee reported. California drivers now pay 85 cents per gallon more than the national average.

But will there be any pricing consideration for rural, low/medium income Vermonters who need their cars and trucks to get to work, and can’t afford to pay even more for their gasoline and diesel fuel? What about the Vermonters who will have difficulty paying more for food and others goods because the store owners were forced to pass along higher delivery fees?

Many Vermonters (especially outside of Chittenden County) commute to work, school and market on secondary roads in poor weather. Gas-guzzling all-wheel drive cars and trucks are preferred for safety during winter and Mud Season. Except for a few urban centers and major state highways, public transportation is minimal. TCI, in the name of emissions reduction, would increase the cost of transportation for rural Vermonters, including many who are already struggling to afford their cars — and their homes and food, too.

The TCI Oct. 1 framework acknowledges these concerns: “there are communities within the TCI region that live with historic inequities with respect to accessibility, mobility, affordability, public health risks, and a disproportionate vulnerability to a changing climate.” However, TCI won’t waive or reduce the financial impact on low-income, rural Vermonters. Instead it recommends that states with such concerns create more on rural public transportation: “expanding low-carbon and clean mobility options in urban, suburban, and rural communities, particularly for populations and communities that are currently underserved by the transportation system or disproportionately adversely affected by climate change and transportation pollution.”

In other words, TCI-Vermont would tell rural Vermonters, “we’ll see about getting your community more bus service. But until then — pay up.”

Statehouse Headliners is intended primarily to educate, not advocate. It is e-mailed to an ever-growing list of interested Vermonters, public officials and media. Guy Page is affiliated with the Vermont Energy Partnership; the Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare; and Physicians, Families and Friends for a Better Vermont.

Image courtesy of Michael Bielawski/TNR