What the Clean Heat Standard will address
As the Vermont Senate debates the Clean Heat Standard bill, here are some of the areas the legislation attempts to tackle.
Many climate and energy activist object to the Clean Heat Standard bill’s inclusion of “biofuels” such as biodiesel, manufactured methane (which the gas industry calls “renewable natural gas”) and wood products.
According to 350VT these are not “clean fuels”:
- When their entire life cycle is taken into account, they do not provide an emissions advantage over fossil fuels.
- Source materials are difficult to trace, so there’s little way of knowing what is actually being burned.
- Growing oil crops on a massive scale requires immense amounts of land, putting the enterprise in direct competition with food crops and increasing the risk of further land-clearing and deforestation.
“Basically … we wouldn’t be able to measure the (greenhouse gas) impacts of the biofuels we burn in Vermont because of their blending,” explained 350VT’s Vanessa Rule. “Also, the carbon emitted when biofuels displace and destroy carbon sinks, like forests and grasslands, is not being quantified in the accounting.”
Clean Fuels Alliance America disagrees. It is an agricultural lobbyist headquartered in Missouri that until this past January called itself the National Biodiesel Board, but has rebranded in pursuit of a broader concept to describe its clients’ products, which now include “sustainable aviation fuel.”
In addition to insisting that switching from fossil fuels to biofuels would be “superior” to weatherization in achieving emissions reductions, the group’s March 30 memo to the Vermont Senate, written by Director of State Regulatory Affairs Stephen C. Dodge, argues that “biofuel does not pit food against fuel” and that the deforestation and other destructive practices associated with products like palm oil occur in other parts of the world, not in the United States, which would primarily be focused on producing soybean oil.
Rachel Smolker, co-director of Biofuelwatch, said it’s not that simple.
“All of these biodiesel fuels are made from vegetable oils, and the markets for all of them are very tightly linked,” Smolker said. “If demand for one of them goes up, it goes up for all the others.” If you increase the demand for soy oil, that displaces its use someplace else, where palm oil might seem like a good substitute. It would be easy to switch, and hard to trace.
But Dodge said the U.S. biodiesel industry has got it covered. The industry’s current annual production capacity is 3 billion gallons, and it expects to double that capacity before 2030 and then reach 15 billion gallons a year by 2050.
Vermonters would not make a significant contribution to that capacity, however, so they’d be importing biofuels and sending their money out of state, just like they do with fossil fuels, said Thetford resident Scot Zens, a statistical analyst at Dartmouth College and a 350VT volunteer.
“I don’t think the Legislature is really clear about the scale at which meeting the Global Warming Solutions Act depends on that biofuels pathway,” Zens said. “That money leaving the state is going to be used in ways we have no control over. It’s going to be used to keep fossil fuel infrastructure alive and well. And it’s going to be used in a way that actually reduces the incentives for us to weatherize and make our homes more efficient.”
Despite what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) once said years ago about burning wood products — and despite whatever claims the forest biomass industry makes about what the IPCC once said — “burning wood is not ‘carbon neutral’ and we shouldn’t pretend that it is,” Smolker said.
As the Natural Resources Defense Council pointed out in November, “scientists at the IPCC and elsewhere are clear that … it is inaccurate to ‘automatically consider or assume biomass used for energy [is] carbon neutral,’ even in cases where the biomass is thought to be produced sustainably.’”
If Vermont decided to count the carbon emissions from burning wood and accounted for them in a way that reflected reality, it would set an important precedent, Smolker said.
“The pressure to keep that ‘carbon neutral myth’ in place is astronomic. The industry wants that desperately. They don’t want any more debate or discussion about it. So if Vermont were to stand up and say something different that would be very important.”
In a March 18 New Yorker article, Ripton author and climate activist Bill McKibben implied that burning wood was a relic from another time.
“The logic originally seemed sound: if you cut a tree, another grows in its place, and it will eventually soak up the carbon dioxide emitted from burning the first tree,” McKibben wrote. “But ‘eventually’ is the problem. Burning wood is highly inefficient, and so it releases a huge pulse of carbon right now, when the world’s climate system is most vulnerable. Trees that grow back in a few generations’ time will come too late to save the ice caps.”
The Clean Heat Standard would provide incentives for electric heat pumps, but that’s not going to reduce emissions unless Vermont’s utilities clean up their energy mixes, 350VT said.
“The Renewable Energy Standard needs significant correction to ensure we’re only using non-emitting sources of electricity to run highly efficient heat pumps,” the group wrote in its position paper.
The standard, which requires electric utilities to procure a defined percentage of their total retail electric sales from “renewable energy,” is allowing those utilities to source most of the state’s electricity from greenhouse gas-emitting sources like fossil fuels and hydropower, 350VT said.
It’s an issue climate activists have been trying to call attention to for years.
“Critics say Vermont’s renewable energy standard encourages utilities to buy cheap renewable energy certificates, or RECs, from out of state that wouldn’t meet renewable requirements elsewhere,” VTDigger reported in 2019. “That means companies can tout in-state energy generation projects like wind and solar, sell the renewable ‘credits’ to other states, then purchase cheaper credits from out-of-state projects like hydropower, and still count it toward their renewable targets.”
In short, “although Vermont is leading the way on some renewable indicators, the numbers don’t tell the full story — and some think the Green Mountain State should follow what other states have done and adopt a stricter definition of renewables.”
Climate activists have also criticized the Clean Heat Standards bill, H.715, for setting up a complex accounting system that would lead to “greenwashing, not green energy.”
Among other things, it would:
- make it possible, because of loopholes similar to those in the Renewable Energy Standard, to pollute and still claim to be producing “clean heat.”
- pave the way for biofuels to become the dominant source of that “clean heat.”
- count already occurring taxpayer-funded reductions from other climate programs as credits in this program, which could potentially lead to Vermonters having to pay a second time for already achieved reductions — via premiums on fuel deliveries. This, in turn, would reduce the amount of weatherization and efficiency the state could afford.
Furthermore, critics charge, the Clean Heat Standard’s proposed regulatory process allows corporations, which have clear conflicts of interest, to act as decision-makers. And if manufactured methane becomes an acceptable replacement for oil, propane and kerosene, one of those corporations, Vermont Gas, could end up with a virtual heating fuel monopoly in the state.
Rep. Sally Achey, R-Middletown Springs, from her seat on the House Energy & Technology Committee, didn’t like it either.
“This is a complicated proposition,” she wrote in her March 8 VT Digger op-ed. “Consultants to the Climate Council estimate that meeting the goals of the Global Warming Solutions Act will require 253,481 separate actions across weatherization, installation of heat pumps, etc. by 2025, and 469,743 by 2030. Each of these actions will potentially generate one or more clean heat credits.
“It is not clear how the state is going to verify that each of these events took place, assign a credit value to each, assign ownership of these credits, and monitor that ownership through purchases and sales over the credits’ lifetime,” Achey continued. “This is a huge task that will require meticulous oversight. The cost to run an operation of this scale has not been researched, nor has a feasibility study been done to see if it’s even logistically possible with the resources we have.”
Read the main story on this bill by clicking here.
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