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News | Can Vermont save the planet?

By Shay Totten | Vermont Guardian

Posted April 5, 2007

In the grand scheme of things, Vermont takes up a fraction of the Earth’s surface, and its contributions to greenhouse gas emissions are puny. But, that isn’t stopping many from thinking that Vermont may hold a key to solving some of the key environmental challenges related to climate change.

That is part of the reason that Gov. Jim Douglas is leading a trade mission to China, an emerging marketplace for environmental engineering and clean technology firms — two cornerstones of Douglas’ job growth program — and has empanelled a commission to come up with ways to reduce Vermont’s greenhouse gas contributions.

And, it’s a leadership stance that Vermont’s lone congressman — Rep. Peter Welch, D-VT — hopes to channel to Washington.

“What we’ve seen here in the state of Vermont is that Vermont is taking a leadership role in clean energy, and it’s doing it I think because of our common sense approach to solving problems and a willingness to face them along with our long-standing commitment to the environment,” said Welch during a stop April 2 at Draker Solar, a Burlington-based solar technology firm.

Welch this week is touring the state visiting businesses, public schools, and communities that are taking on the challenge to combat climate change, and offering new products, and approaches, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“If we retain our leadership role we will be able to create jobs here in Vermont, and that is what needs to be replicated across this country,” said Welch. “If we take on the challenge of global warming, we can create a pro-growth, pro-jobs, pro-national security policy for the country. We have to do this to create jobs for the 21st century and so we’re not fighting wars in the Middle East over foreign oil.”

Taking the lead
That leadership role has been taken up this year on a number of fronts. Gov. Douglas is continuing his role as a leader among the regional governors and Canadian premiers on ways to curb greenhouse gas emissions, and the Legislature took several weeks at the beginning of the session to focus on global warming.

From these efforts, have stemmed a wide-reaching energy bill that would expand energy efficiency programs to non-electrical fuel sources — namely natural gas and home heating fuels. The Department of Public Service believes that consumers would save $468 million if they invested $150 million in home heating efficiency in the next decade.

Another group that has quietly been working on a series of proposals that could set new standards for how states lower their greenhouse gas emissions is the Governor’s Climate Change Commission (GCCC).

The five-member commission, which hosts larger plenary sessions that include dozens of environmental, business, and academic leaders from around Vermont, is scheduled to release its formal findings in the fall.

But, the group recently issued seven “consensus” items to the Legislature, a list developed upon request from lawmakers who wanted to make sure the GCCC had some input into potential legislation.

“The consensus document was in response to a meeting with Peter Shumlin and Gaye Symington,” said Ernie Pomerleau, a Burlington-based real estate developer who chairs the GCCC. “They know we have been working pretty diligently in the last 12 months to get this thing through, but it’s also clear the Legislature had taken this up as one of their primary initiatives this session. We knew that we could not up our timeline, but we could offer them a bunch of things that we could all agree on.”

Those agreed-upon items include:

• Further develop greenhouse gas emissions inventories and begin to forecast emissions;
• Develop a greenhouse gas reporting program;
• Establish a greenhouse gas reduction registry;
• Conduct public education and outreach; and,
• Create an adaptation commission.

The latter, adaptation, would have the state “develop a plan to manage the projected impacts of global warming while broader mitigation efforts to lower atmospheric concentrations world-wide are being developed and implemented” since some global warming is likely to occur. The GCCC believes a committee could be established to develop plans.

The GCCC also suggested that it and the Legislature join forces to create a summer study committee, plan and convene a high-profile symposium on climate change, and initiate a challenge to Vermont’s colleges and universities to “identify, target, and educate students regarding technology and policy leadership opportunities that will be created in the course of a changing climate and society’s responses to it.”

Committee members, and those participating in the larger plenary sessions, agree the consensus document adds little to the legislative debate, though it may offer some support to collecting more baseline data about greenhouse emissions in Vermont.

“That document has been left behind in the dust by both the House and the Senate,” said Sen. Ginny Lyons, D-Chitttenden, chairwoman of the Senate Natural Resources Committee. Lyons, who does participate in the larger plenary group, said the GCCC’s work is useful, but she hopes the state can move more quickly in order to have an impact.

“We have to move very fast on this issue whether we’re acclimating to climate change or stopping it from happening so fast,” said Lyons. That means perhaps being more aggressive at first and taking some risks to cut down carbon dioxide emissions.

“We already know that about 46 percent comes from housing and buildings, and 51 percent is from transportation and doing an inventory might make sense if its on the individual level so people can see what it is they are personally contributing and how they are contributing,” said Lyons, who believes the state should expand energy efficiency programs to home heating.

Lyons, like Rep. Robert Dostis, D-Waterbury, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, believe Vermont may be nearing the end of the “low-hanging fruit” in terms of energy savings.

“We may already be at the arm’s reach fruit, and the next ones are going to be really hard to get and we need to have those conversations quickly,” she said.

That said, Lyons and others are very keen on what will come next from the commission.

“There isn’t much in the consensus document in terms of policy direction because the governor’s commission has until the September report to issue its concrete policy directions,” said James Moore, the clean energy advocate of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group in Montpelier, and a member of the larger plenary group. “The rubber meets the road in the next few months when the plenary group will be voting on which proposal should be recommended to the governor.

Commission member Elizabeth Courtney, the executive director of the Vermont Natural Resources Council, agrees that the hard work lies ahead. But, she also thinks the consensus ideas aren’t throwaway ones.

Courtney sees the public education component as one that could be highly effective in Vermont, given there are number of citizen groups already at work in the state.

“I think we should help connect this network of citizen action that is already taking place and arguably way ahead of the administration and this commission and the Legislature,” said Courtney. “Citizen groups have been taking the bull by the horns for years and forming energy committees on a local level and even a personal level.”

She envisions as part of the public outreach a website that can serve as hub to connect the dozens of local energy committees around the state.
Items such as the emissions inventory is something that is already being done, but forecasting is not and she hopes the Legislature could encourage the administration to follow through with the suggestion.

The reporting program is also in the works, but she adds, every bit of encouragement helps.

In the coming months, the GCCC will work with its team of consultants and volunteer members to determine which of the remaining 38 ideas make sense in Vermont.

“We have 38 initiatives on the table and are now looking at them with the scientists to determine how much carbon does each of these save, what does it cost and what’s its impact to the community,” said Pomerleau. “It took us a while to distill 150 initiatives to about 40, but it’s been a good process.”

The group, which was formed in September, has had “cordial and spirited” discussions, and Pomerleau said he has worked hard to keep everyone at the table, and has not allowed the discussion to devolve into whether global warming is happening, but to focus on ways Vermont can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, all of which are pollutants, and have some negative impact on the environment.

“I cannot tell you exactly how the fast seas are rising or how quickly the polar caps are melting and I’ve been very careful not to get into that debate and rather focus on the issues that we do have control over,” said Pomerleau.

The plenary groups are working on three major areas — agriculture, energy, and transportation.

According to Pomerleau some of the most engaged activity is happening around agriculture, which offers options including:

• Increase to 30 percent the amount of food bought in Vermont that is grown and produced in Vermont;
• Slow the rate of farmland being converted to development, and slow the rate of forested land being converted out of working use;
• Boost liquid biofuels production to 50 million gallons annually by 2028, or 20 percent of total demand, and ethanol production to 50 million gallons, or 15 percent of the demand; and,
• Improve nutrient management programs on farms, and help farms either compost, or digest, animal manure and use for other purposes — such as power production.

The commission is also looking at a wide range of other options, including ways to get more people to carpool, or use alternative forms of transportation to get to work other than driving in a car by themselves. Vehicle emissions are the single largest source of greenhouse gases in Vermont.

It is also looking at ways to determine what is the best fuel mix for Vermont in the future — is it wind, hydro, biomass, or nuclear, or a mix of all four. One proposal being examined would determine if Vermont’s utilities should establish contracts with nuclear power plants other than Vermont Yankee as a way to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases that the state’s fuel source emits.

They are also looking to see how best to promote cleaner technologies for electricity and heat to consumers, and if it’s feasible to expand energy efficiency programs to home heating fuels.