Tom Evslin: Note to Legislature: First do no harm

This commentary is by Tom Evslin of Stowe, an entrepreneur, author and former Douglas administration official. It is republished from the Fractals of Change blog.

Just before we knew Covid was hitting us in February of 2020, the Vermont House overwhelmingly passed the Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA) in order to reduce greenhouse gas emission. The average price for home heating oil in the US that February was $2.89/gallon. Advocates of the bill felt that this price was too low to give Vermonters an economic incentive to switch off fossil fuel; but a legislature which faces reelection every two years doesn’t dare just openly add a huge tax to raise the price of home heating. Instead the legislature set up an unelected council to come up with schemes to force a switch from fossil fuels.

Tom Evslin

In 2021, when the price of home heating oil was still under $3.00/gallon, the council duly proposed the Clean Heat Standard, a scheme to force natural gas, propane and heating oil dealers to either switch their customers to “renewable” heating sources or purchase clean energy credits. Either way, users of fossil fuel would end up subsidizing those who switched to renewables. The cost of fossil fuel would go up; the price of renewables would be lowered by yet more subsidies. The price difference would incent the fuel switching the legislature wanted without the necessity of any legislator voting directly on a price increase for home heating.

Governor Phil Scott vetoed the bill and fortunately that veto was upheld (by just one vote). However, thanks to President Biden’s fossil-fuel-hostile policy with an assist from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, fans of higher fuel prices have gotten more than they dared hope for. The average price of home heating oil in the US was $5.43 in the week ending November 21, 2022 – almost twice the price when the Vermont House first passed GWSA! There’s a good chance that price will go even higher this winter.

If you believed that higher prices were needed to save the planet, you’ve got them. Vermonters are currently worried about heating their homes. They would gladly adopt alternatives which are cheaper than oil or propane. No need to raise the price of oil further, is there? Of course not.

So what should this legislative session do to reduce Vermont’s net emissions?

At first glance the voters seem to have sent a mixed message. They gave Democrats and Progressives, many of whom emphasized environmental action, an even greater super majority with which they might override vetoes. On the other hand, these same voters also reelected Republican Phil Scott, who vetoed the Clean Heat Standard, with a margin greater than that any Republican Governor has had since Democrats reemerged in the State half a century ago.

A reasonable interpretation of the apparently mixed message is that we voters would like to see climate action which does not push soaring energy prices even higher. Fortunately we have such an alternative.

Trees remove atmospheric CO2 by using sunlight to break it down and then storing much of the resulting carbon in the tree and in the ground, a process called sequestration. Removing a pound of CO2 from the atmosphere has the same effect on climate as avoiding a pound of emissions. CO2 sequestration by trees is fast emerging as a practical way to reduce greenhouse gas in the atmosphere and net emissions. The 2018 UN IPCC Report lists reforestation as the cheapest alternative per pound of COremoved from the atmosphere compared both to other ways of removing CO2 and to strategies for reducing emissions. Plans from the recent COP 27 climate summit rely heavily on forest preservation and restoration.

Vermont is over 75% forested. In 2018 (the last year we have information for), Vermont forests REMOVED 5.2 MMT CO2-e (metric tons of CO2 equivalent greenhouse gas) from the atmosphere. (I and others have argued that this number should be much higher this number is estimated according to standards and methodologies which are generally accepted nationally and blessed by the UN so let’s go with it). Forest management with an emphasis on carbon sequestration (which does NOT preclude logging) could easily increase this number by 20% over the next decade. Huge progress towards the goals in the GWSA.

“There are up to 536,000 acres of opportunity in Vermont to restore forest cover for climate mitigation. Reforesting these areas with approximately 291 million trees could capture 1.65 million tonnes of CO2 per year, equivalent to removing 355,000 cars from the road.” [sic. The funny spelling means that these are metric tons – 1000Kg each]. This quote is from Reforestation Hub, a website run by the Nature Conservancy. Much of this land is in already abandoned or failing dairy farms. Farmers would gain by having a new market for the land.

At most we must reduce 1.28 million tons to meet the 2025 goal in the Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA).  We can get there easily.

The feds are making billions of (our) money available for forest management and reforestation under both the recently passed Infrastructure Bill and the Inflation Reduction Act (sic). This year the legislature and the governor can and should concentrate on using those funds effectively towards climate goals by establishing forest management and reforestation programs. That’s the kind of cooperation and climate action we voters would like to see.

Image courtesy of TNR
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One thought on “Tom Evslin: Note to Legislature: First do no harm

  1. “Instead the legislature set up an unelected council to come up with schemes to force a switch from fossil fuels.”

    Tom, I would rephase this to: Instead they pushed to responsibility to someone else.


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