Op/Ed

Community forum: Lawmakers crafting climate policy

This week’s writer is Roger White, an artist, teacher and volunteer with 350VT from Middlebury.

The current legislative semester is crucial in Vermont’s effort to address the climate crisis. Lawmakers are working hard to turn the recommendations of Vermont’s first Climate Action Plan into effective policy that puts us on the right path towards limiting our greenhouse gas emissions, transitioning to renewable energy, and preparing our infrastructure for climate-related challenges.

A key element of this project is the establishment of fair and effective environmental standards: ones that hold us accountable to our stated goals, help us reach them, and ensure that the costs and benefits of doing so are shared equitably between all Vermonters.

The legislature is now evaluating our Renewable Energy Standard (which sets guidelines for Vermont’s electric distribution utilities) and a proposed Clean Heat Standard (which would affect suppliers of heating fuel). There are serious problems with both: they leave open loopholes that let us think we’re making far more progress than we are. Without a course correction, we could end up in a situation where Vermont’s energy sector meets state environmental standards, and yet we do very little to curb emissions and reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and other environmentally-destructive energy sources.

Developing effective and sensible energy standards is especially crucial as we move towards electrifying our transportation and heating: driving an electric car or installing a heat pump are fine, but what if the electricity that powers them is still generated from emissions-heavy sources? To ensure that these standards do what they should, we need to examine them carefully.

WHAT’S RENEWABLE?

Vermont’s renewable energy standard is higher than those found in many of our neighboring states. However, this is misleading: our definition of “renewable” is broader than the one found in these comparable standards. Our utilities are able to meet their mandated quota of renewably generated electricity because we treat large-scale hydropower as a renewable source of energy; it has a dubious claim to the title, to say the least.

Hydropower produced by the massive Canadian utility, Hydro-Québec (our state’s largest energy provider, from whom we now get about 30% of our electricity) generates substantial amounts of both methane and carbon dioxide. These emissions are completely disregarded under the Renewable Energy Standard, which treats hydropower as an emissions-free energy source. (Methane is especially worrisome because it drives short-term global warming even more than CO2 does.)

The network of dams operated by Hydro-Québec also floods a yearly average of about 6,000 square miles of land, some of which is unceded First Nations territory, causing massive ecosystem disruption. There’s an “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” quality to our disregard of the environmental impact of Hydro-Québec: imagine nearly two-thirds of Vermont being underwater for all or part of the year.

Large-scale hydropower may be renewable in the sense that water isn’t used up in the process, but it certainly fails in the task of “protecting and promoting air and water quality in the State and region” and may ultimately fail in “contributing to reductions in global climate change”—two goals of the Renewable Energy Standard set forth in Vermont statute.

HOW CLEAN IS CLEAN HEAT?

The same holds true for two other energy sources currently being treated as “clean” for the proposed Clean Heat Standard: biofuel and “renewable natural gas.” Both present significant problems in terms of emissions, ecosystem damage, and social impact.

Biofuels (liquid or gas fuels made from plant material or agricultural waste) almost always end up emitting more carbon than fossil fuels do, when we take into account both their production and combustion. Biofuel is a land-intensive source of energy: not only does it displace food crop production (resulting in instances of food shortages and increases in food prices), it results in large-scale deforestation that prevents a given ecosystem from naturally absorbing carbon dioxide — exacerbating its greenhouse gas emissions problem.

“Renewable natural gas” is methane captured from organic waste and wastewater treatment, livestock operations and factory farms. Like biofuel, it is predominantly produced out of state, making potential pipeline leakage and other transportation concerns an issue. To take it seriously as a “clean heat” energy, we would need to overlook the significant environmental impact of (for example) the large-scale industrial dairy operations that make renewable natural gas production profitable. Renewable natural gas is an effective public relations tool for the natural gas industry, but, ironically, it’s unscalable as an energy source; it just isn’t possible to generate enough of it to significantly meet Vermont’s energy demands in the first place.

We should also note that the environmental impacts of large scale hydropower, renewable natural gas, and biofuel are disproportionately severe for members of the vulnerable communities near which production sites are often located. This suggests that, when we treat them as “clean” sources of energy, perhaps what we really mean is: they’re clean for us.

Editor’s note: Read Part 2 of Roger White’s commentary in next week’s Independent.

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