By Guy Page
When the Legislature convenes in January, Vermonters can expect a full-court press to impose added costs and restrictions on many fossil fuel products and benefits. Here’s the latest on five climate change initiatives.
Transportation & Climate Initiative (TCI) plan goes public Tuesday night
Senior Vermont environmental, transportation and energy officials will present their work on the multi-state Transportation & Climate Initiative (TCI) at a public meeting 6 p.m. Oct. 22 at the Pavilion Auditorium at 109 State St., Montpelier. The TCI is a “stealth carbon tax” that would make Vermont transportation fuel dealers pay for carbon emitted by the fuel they sell. The cost would be passed on to customers (regardless of income) at the pump.
The proceeds from increasing the cost of gasoline and diesel would go to the State of Vermont for “investment” in renewable, low-carbon transportation, such as electric cars and public transportation. A California TCI is expected to cost 36 cents/gallon at the pump by 2030. For more details on this multi-state plan which is likely to appear before the Vermont Legislature next year and does not (yet) have approval from Gov. Phil Scott, see Oct. 7 Vermont Daily Chronicle.
Burlington mayor (again) urges statewide carbon tax
Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger Oct. 11 repeated his December, 2018 call for a statewide carbon tax.
To demonstrate the Queen City’s leadership, Weinberger told a crowd of statewide renewable industry operators and lobbyists that “going forward, Burlington will use a carbon price of $100 per ton when evaluating all fleet purchases and leases, as well as all heating system replacements during major building renovations.”
Yet Weinberger stopped short of recommending a city carbon tax. He apparently is shy of asking his voters to pay extra for all diesel and gasoline sold at Burlington pumps, and for heating fuel warming Burlington homes and businesses. The mayor was re-elected to a three-year term in 2018 with 48% of the vote.
Statewide, carbon taxation is supported by most Chittenden County legislators, but is less popular outside of the state’s largest urban area, in part because of its likely adverse impact on poorer Vermonters living in rural areas more dependent on cars for transportation.
Senate president wants to revisit pension fund divestment of fossil fuels
Vermont Senate president Tim Ashe (D/P – Chittenden County) tweeted Oct. 15 that it’s time to re-examine Vermont removing fossil-fuel stocks from its state/school/municipal employee pension funds: “If Green Mountain Power feels divesting its pension funds from fossil fuel companies makes good business sense, then it’s time for VT’s Treasurer and pension board to re-assess their historical opposition to divestment.” His tweet includes a letter that doesn’t flat-out demand divestment but instead puts the onus on Treasurer Beth Pearce.
Vermont’s state/school/municipal pension fund has a $4.5 billion unfunded liability. It owes more than it owns – a troubling thought indeed to teachers, municipal workers, and state employees with most of their retirement eggs now resting uncertainly in its under-built nest. Two years ago a PCA study commissioned by Pearce concluded that it would cost too much money to structurally extract fossil fuel investments from the $4 billion fund, would severely limit investment options, and wouldn’t reduce emissions: “Divestment doesn’t reduce any greenhouse gases, in my opinion. It transfers ownership from one owner to another. It can be a big symbolic gesture, but it doesn’t work on government policy or a corporate policy to transition to another [fossil-free] structure.”
This study was the final nail in the coffin of a once-robust lobbying effort to pass a law mandating pension fund divestment. It’s hard to imagine how any of the study’s conclusions might have changed in two years. What has changed, and for the better, is the performance of Vermont pension fund investments, due to the sustained growth in the stock market. On Nov. 8, 2016 the Dow-Jones stood at 18,332; not quite three years later it’s at 26,813, an increase of more than 50%. As a result, pension fund investments that returned a measly 1.6% in 2018 returned a robust 6.8% in 2019. Tying one hand behind the backs of the fund’s investment experts seems unlikely to continue this trend.
Plastic products ban may be expanded
A summer study committee meets tomorrow afternoon at the State House to discuss broadening the 2019 law restricting sale of some one-time use plastic products. As VPIRG President Paul Burns said on a June, 2019 episode of the Dave Gram Show, plastic is a climate activist issue:
During the radio show Wednesday, Burns observed that “these are petroleum-based products, so there are climate implications here, too.” When Gram wondered aloud if people will consider just how much oil is being used to make plastics when the next oil crisis shortage hits, Burns answered: “It’s a lot bigger than you might think. They say the petroleum industry is actually counting on the continued expansion of the use of plastics as being an outlet for their product. It’s not just going into the gas tank. A lot of this petroleum material, some of it now derived from fracking of natural gas, is being used to make plastic.”
About 15% of all petrochemicals are used in the manufacture of single-use plastics, a British Petroleum economist told the Guardian newspaper last year.
Among those invited to testify tomorrow are a government relations official with McDonalds (product quality concerns about non-plastic containers) and former Rutland Mayor and legislator Chris Louras.
Proposed law mandates cutting carbon emissions by 75% by 2050
S.173, “an act relating to the mitigation of climate change,” was enthusiastically supported at the end of the 2019 session by lead sponsor Sen. Alison Clarkson (D-Windsor). Expected to get a long look in 2020, it amends state carbon reduction law in at least one crucial aspect: replacing “it is the goal of the State to reduce carbon emissions” with “the State shall [emphasis added] reduce emissions of greenhouse gases” by 75% by 2050. A common-sense qualifier, “whenever practicable,” has been removed.
In effect, this law would give State of Vermont regulators carte blanche to make carbon reduction a cardinal virtue as it renders decisions affecting the environment, economy, energy, employment, education, quality of life, etc.. The only limitation would seem to be specific regulation and law to the contrary (which can of course be modified) and the lengths to which appointed, un-elected State of Vermont officials will go to impose carbon reduction.
According to a VTDigger April 11 report, Clarkson recast a carbon tax bill as an economic bill, “promoting the idea that investing in climate solutions will help boost the state’s economy.” She was quoted as saying, “the outdoor industry – skiing and snowmobiling and ice fishing – they’re all gone if we don’t do this.”
There are at least three other significant pieces of climate change legislation to watch for. The Act 250 revision is tasked by law to address climate change. Continued increased spending on alternative transportation is likely to appear in the 2020 Transportation bill. It is unclear what legislation, if any, will emerge from the Vermont Forest Carbon Sequestration Group, which will recommend carbon reduction policies as part of Vermont forest management.