Stopping State Handouts for Sprawl

Jul 21, 2014 by  | Bio |  1 Comment »

Over the past year it has been troubling to see large new development projects planned for areas around Vermont’s highway interchanges. It was not that long ago that Vermont’s then Governor Howard Dean issued an executive order protecting our highway interchanges from sprawl development.

Our public dollars created the interstates and we have a responsibility – to our pocketbooks and to our environment – to take good care of them.

That responsibility includes avoiding traffic snarling commercial sprawl at our highway exits.

Highway sprawl is expensive. A look at the roadway improvements planned around Burlington, Vermont, including two multi-million dollar interchange re-builds, show that many of them are needed now because of the commercial sprawl that sprang up around these exits.  As federal transportation dollars dwindle, we can ill afford to promote sprawl near highway exits that is guaranteed to require new and expensive upgrades in the coming decades. As we drive more to reach commercial developments near highway exits we increase pollution and greenhouse gases as well.

Governor Dean’s executive order from 2001 recognized that development at interstate interchanges can mar not only the scenic character of the state, but also can impair natural and agricultural resources and harm tourism. It directed state agencies to foster conservation of land in and around the highway interchanges.

Moving away from Governor’s Dean’s vision, this past year developers proposed changing Vermont’s Act 250 land use law to make it easier to build on valuable farmland. A poster child for this was a massive new commercial project planned for the Randolph highway exit. The plan would pave nearly all the farmland at the highway exit and replace it with a large commercial development, a portion of which would serve as a state visitors’ center.

Instead of protecting land around the interstate, state agencies would be partners with this sprawl development.

The proposed Act 250 change that would have helped this project never passed the Vermont Legislature, and the project appears to be on hold.

Now there is a proposal for a new truck stop-like huge convenience store along with a “state sanctioned welcome center” on a farm field just twenty miles up the road at the Berlin exit in Vermont. Traveler services are needed, but they come at too high a price if they are married to massive sprawling commercial developments at our highway exits.

This past year the Vermont Legislature did amend Act 250 to provide stronger protections against strip development outside of town. If some of these projects at our highway interchanges move forward it will be a good test of this new protection.

In contrast to these highway developments, the Vermont Judiciary just announced that it will move the State’s Environmental Court to downtown Burlington. This is good news. The Environmental Court, which hears appeals of Act 250 and local land use decisions, will no longer be in a stand-alone office building on a farm field outside of town. Instead it will set a good example for developers by being better integrated with other courts and closer to services in a downtown location.

Our public dollars, natural resources and scenic beauty are too important to squander in exchange for some short-term savings that burden future generations with more pollution and higher costs. Like the Environmental Court, the public investments and development decisions we make today should stand as good examples for generations.

A version of this post first appeared in the Sunday July 19 edition of the Rutland Herald and Barre- Montpelier Times Argus.

VT Gas Pipeline: Review Ballooning Costs and Halt Construction

Jul 14, 2014 by  | Bio |  1 Comment »

CLF is asking Vermont regulators to examine the Vermont Gas pipeline project in light of its soaring costs. Construction should be halted unless and until regulators approve the changed project.

Soaring costs require reassessment. Recently Vermont Gas announced that the costs for its new gas pipeline will be 40% higher than they represented to regulators.

These higher costs come as no surprise to CLF or to Vermont Gas.

Vermont law requires regulators to review new utility projects. Regulators can only approve projects if they will “promote the general good of the state.”

Approvals are not blank checks. When costs soar, benefits decline.  Construction cannot move forward without review and approval of the changed project.

Vermont law has long required that when there is a substantial change to a project, an amended permit is needed. A 40% cost increase – especially when VT Gas knew or should have known of the higher costs – is a substantial change.

Vermont Gas failed to seek approval for the changed project. The Vermont Public Service Board should require VT Gas to halt construction and get the permit they need.

If VT Gas cannot justify their new soaring costs the project should be scrapped.

Vermont and the nation should be running – not walking – away from our reliance of dirty fossil fuels. As these ballooning costs show, new pipelines are high cost and high risk investments in old technology.

Vermont utilities should be up front about costs. The higher costs of the gas pipeline are not a surprise. Vermont Gas knew about the natural resource impacts, the additional analysis, engineering and landowner permission it would need. Instead of responsibly addressing these challenges early, it bulldozed its way through the permitting process.

Vermont Gas should get the permits it needs or not build its pipeline.

Read CLF’s Petition here.

CLF Appeals Withholding of Public Records on Regional Energy Plans

Jul 10, 2014 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Conservation Law Foundation filed appeals in Vermont and Massachusetts regarding the withholding of public documents about the development of the New England Governors’ regional energy plans, which include gas pipeline and hydropower projects. CLF requested these documents in March to bring transparency to the process surrounding the Governors’ plans, which to date have been shrouded in unnecessary secrecy.

In Vermont, CLF primarily seeks documents that the New England States Committee on Electricity (NESCOE) – the agency working to implement the massive initiative – has refused to produce. CLF appealed NESCOE’s refusal under Vermont’s broad access to public records law. Vermont law is clear that all entities that act as an arm of the state and perform a government function are subject to Vermont’s Access to Public Records Law.

Vermont has a long and proud tradition of open government. In April, Vermont’s agencies promptly provided some documents in response to CLF’s initial request, but NESCOE refused entirely to provide any records. NESCOE was created by and functions as an arm of state governments. As such, it is responsible to comply with Vermont’s public records law.

NESCOE cannot hide behind a veil of secrecy as it develops massive new electric and gas projects for the region. NESCOE’s secrecy thwarts effective and smart resolutions. As we detailed in our briefing to the public last month, the documents that CLF has managed to obtain from some states reveal NESCOE’s outright hostility to conducting the planning process in the open, pervasive and improper influence by the companies that stand to benefit from the plan, and a troubling willingness on the part of NESCOE and state officials to take enormous risks with our money, our region’s energy progress, and our climate.

courtesy of Samyra Serin @ flickr

courtesy of Samyra Serin @ flickr

Customers in Vermont and other states have a right to know the facts about changes to our region’s energy system, especially changes that they will be on the hook to pay for, including the possible overbuilding of and unfair subsidies for massive new electric transmission projects and fossil fuel expansions in the region.

In Massachusetts, CLF’s appeal challenges the timing of the response. Massachusetts law requires the government to respond to a request for public documents within 10 days of receipt. CLF sent its request in March and has been told that the requested documents will not be available until July 31.

The CLF appeals filed include:

We all should have a chance to fully understand what we will be buying with this proposed regional energy plan. CLF’s appeals seek to bring an open process based on sound research and analysis, rather than backroom dealings with industry insiders.

Vermont Gas — Faulty Analysis, Faulty Results

Jun 16, 2014 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Taking climate change seriously means taking a hard look at proposals to expand fossil fuels in the region. Science tells us we need to move quickly – run, don’t walk – away from fossil fuels to cleaner, renewable sources of energy.

The massive new pipeline proposed by Vermont Gas will run (not walk) through Vermont and across Lake Champlain to serve an industrial customer in New York. It will be a pipeline in place for 50 to 100 years – long past the time we need to move away from fossil fuels.

Common sense says a new fossil fuel project will increase greenhouse gas emissions. The analysis from Vermont Gas defies common sense. It is based on unreasonable and unrealistic assumptions about future uses, methane leaks and the global warming features of methane.

Following current science, CLF filed testimony at the Public Service Board showing the troubling and faulty analysis by Vermont Gas.

Professor Jon Erickson, a leading ecological economist at the University of Vermont explained the imperative to reduce emissions based on the recent IPCC assessment and how expansion of natural gas “would likely result in considerable, long-term lock-in to natural gas use resulting in total GHG increases and nonrenewable energy dependence that is incompatible with long-term state policy.” (p.8). You can read the testimony here.

Shanna Cleveland who authored a report of gas leaks and has been active in a number of regional gas proceedings explained several shortcomings in the Vermont Gas analysis including:

1) leak rates that underestimate emissions (pp.  8-10); 2) emission estimates that do not correspond to the system that supplies gas to VGS (p. 10); 3) unreasonable assumptions by VGS that all gas will replace oil (p. 10-13); 4) failure to use the most recent figures for the global warming potential of methane (pp. 14-16); and 5) failure to account for excess capacity (p. 16). These shortcomings show that VGS significantly underestimates the emissions that will result from the project. Ms. Cleveland then identifies steps that can be taken to reduce emissions and make sure we use our limited supply of gas wisely. (p.20-25). You can read the testimony here.

James Moore, a developer of solar projects for consumers explained how cleaner, low cost solar is available now to meet heating needs and how expanding natural gas undermines Vermont’s ability to meet its clean energy goals. (pp.5-6). You can read the testimony here.

As President Obama said in a recent interview with Thomas Friedman of the New York Times: “Science is science …. And there is no doubt that if we burned all the fossil fuel that’s in the ground right now that the planet’s going to get too hot and the consequences could be dire.”  Concerning natural gas, where methane leaks can wipe out any climate benefits of natural gas, it is important for states to get it right. That means saying “NO” to carte blanche approval of massive new pipelines. It also means industry and regulators building in conditions to pipeline use that support the needed transition to cleaner and lower cost energy supplies.

Public Hearing: Vermont Gas Pipeline Expansion

Jun 11, 2014 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

The Vermont Public Service Board will be holding a public hearing on the proposed Phase 2 expansion of Vermont Gas facilities.

Vermont Gas Systems Expansion
Thursday evening, June 12, 2014 
7:00 p.m 
Middlebury Union High School Auditorium
73 Charles Ave., Middlebury, VT

At a time when climate change is upon us we must think carefully about putting in place new fossil fuel systems that will be around for a very long time. Keeping us hooked on fossil fuels for many years is a bad idea.

The Board is considering a proposal to expand the Vermont Gas Systems pipeline through Addison County and across to New York to serve the Ticonderoga Mill. The proposed project would run through valuable wetlands and farmland, and expands Vermont’s reliance on fossil fuels at a time we need to be moving away from these polluting sources. This prior post explains some of the problems of expanding natural gas use.

Come let the Board know what concerns you have. Tell the Board you want to make sure energy is used wisely and that Vermont takes steps now to reduce our addiction to fossil fuels. It is important for the Public Service Board to hear from you

Tell Vermont Regulators – More Clean, Low-Cost Energy Efficiency Needed

May 27, 2014 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Tell the Vermont Public Service Board (PSB) that Vermont needs more energy efficiency, not more expensive and polluting power.

The PSB will be deciding the budget for electric energy efficiency in Vermont.  Energy efficiency is the cleanest and lowest cost energy resource for Vermont.  Spending 3 to 5 cents now for energy efficiency avoids buying more costly 8 to 10 cent electricity. Already Vermonters have saved over $800 million dollars from our investments in energy efficiency. Committing to save 3% annually from energy efficiency saves Vermonters money and reduces pollution.

Join CLF and VPIRG in asking the PSB to approve a budget that leads to acquiring a modest 3% annual savings. This level of energy efficiency is in line with efficiency efforts in other states in the region. We can’t afford to fall behind and leave clean energy efficiency savings on the table. Putting energy efficiency first prepares Vermont for the changes ahead, keeps jobs in Vermont and supports clean energy.

You can read CLF & VPIRG’s comments here and here, and you can learn more about Efficiency Vermont’s work here.

Your voice is needed to ensure Vermont puts energy efficiency first.  The PSB should be urged to set a budget to acquire 3% annual savings.  Submit comments to the PSB by June 1, 2014 supporting 3% annual efficiency savings for Vermont. Send your comment to: Include Energy Efficiency Budget in the subject line and let the Board know you support more clean, low cost energy efficiency.


Public Hearing: Vermont Gas Pipeline Expansion

May 5, 2014 by  | Bio |  2 Comment »

The Vermont Public Service Board will be holding a public hearing on the proposed expansion of Vermont Gas facilities.

Vermont Gas Systems Expansion

Wednesday evening, May 7, 2014

7:00 p.m 

Shoreham Elementary School,  130 School Road, Shoreham, Vermont

At a time when climate change is upon us we must think carefully about putting in place new fossil fuel systems that will be around for a very long time. Keeping us hooked on fossil fuels for many years is a bad idea.

The Board is considering a proposal to expand the Vermont Gas Systems pipeline through Addison County and across to New York to serve the Ticonderoga Mill. The proposed project would run through valuable wetlands and farmland, and expands Vermont’s reliance on fossil fuels at a time we need to be moving away from these polluting sources. This prior post explains some of the problems of expanding gas use.

Come let the Board know what concerns you have. Tell the Board you want to make sure energy is used wisely and that Vermont takes steps now to reduce our addiction to fossil fuels. It is important for the Public Service Board to hear from you.


Protecting Farmland and Communities – Keeping Act 250 Strong

Apr 23, 2014 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment


photo courtesy of Geoff Dude

For decades, Vermont’s premiere land use law, Act 250, has provided important protections for Vermont’s natural resources and communities.

Prescient when it was passed in 1970, it provides for development to conform to the natural resources on which we all rely, and to provide for objective, citizen oriented environmental review of major development projects.

Over the years, efforts to weaken Act 250 have mostly been defeated. This year a number of bills being considered by the Vermont Legislature, and the alliances created to support them, cast doubt on Act 250’s continued success.

There is no doubt we are all poorer if we abandon efforts to keep Act 250 strong.

One bill, H.448, weakens protections for agricultural resources by making it easier to develop valuable farmland. By expanding the availability of “off-site mitigation,” the bill allows more acres of farmland to be developed in exchange for paying money into a fund to protect farmland in other areas. The bill rejects longstanding Act 250 precedent that CLF helped develop, that off-site mitigation should only be used as a “last resort,” and should not become a cost of doing business to make it easier to pave farmland.

Another bill, H.823, creates new and broader exemptions from Act 250 for developments in downtowns and other areas. While encouraging development in downtowns makes sense, the bill fails to provide incentives for development in appropriate locations. Instead it relies on expanding Act 250 exemptions, which eliminates review of a project’s impacts.

The Shumlin administration and developers have joined forces to push these changes. In part they grease the skids for new development – from ski areas to highway interchanges to new big box stores. This is a scary prospect. The scale and scope of new development is increasing. Now is not the time to cut back on Act 250 protections.

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Climate Problems of Expanding Natural Gas

Apr 21, 2014 by  | Bio |  5 Comment »

If something seems too good to be true, it probably is. Take natural gas. Its oft-touted low cost and climate benefits are overrated – reminiscent of the nuclear industry’s promise a few decades ago to provide power that would be “too cheap to meter.”

True, current low gas prices have helped the region close its old and polluting coal and nuclear plants. But simply replacing all our oil, propane and coal use with natural gas will not meet our climate objectives. Using gas instead of oil is like a drug addict replacing heroin with methadone – a step in the right direction, but one that fails to provide the meaningful and long-term recovery that we need.

Vermont, like other states in the region, committed to reduce greenhouse gases 75 percent by 2050. The state’s comprehensive energy plan calls for meeting 90 percent of our power needs with renewable resources by 2050. These are ambitious, necessary and achievable goals.


Photo credit: Alexander Baxevanis

The most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report again stresses the imperative of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The report warns of food shortages and harm from flooding for major population centers, including cities on the East Coast, as a result of climate change.

The IPCC report also determined that methane, the major component of natural gas, is a more potent greenhouse gas than previously thought. Methane has long been understood to have far greater global warming potential than carbon dioxide. The potency of methane breaks down over time. Over a hundred year timeframe, methane is 34 times more potent than carbon dioxide. In a shorter, twenty year timeframe, methane is 84 times more potent. Based on the recent IPCC studies, these numbers are about twenty percent higher than in the previous IPCC report. In terms of climate change, methane leaked into the atmosphere from natural gas pipelines and wells is significantly more damaging than carbon dioxide. As methane is studied more, its impacts seem to be more severe. And there is no question it poses bigger problems in the short term when we need to be doing even more to reduce emissions.

The journal Science also recently reported on studies from Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology concluding that overall methane emissions are up to 50 percent higher than previous accounts. These studies suggest that more methane is leaking from natural gas production and transportation. The recent gas explosion in Harlem, N.Y, and the map of leaks in Boston show the bitter reality of leaks that are too often undetected.

Since most of the natural gas supply comes from sources that use hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” we also need to make sure that our use of natural gas is not harming the water supply and environment in communities hosting the gas wells.

It is time for companies, policymakers and regulators to catch up with science. Vermont Gas Systems still seeks approval to expand its operations to serve customers in Addison County, International Paper in New York and eventually Rutland County. The New England Governors have banded together to seek public funding for major new gas pipelines for the region. If built, these projects will put in place long-term fossil fuel infrastructure that is more damaging to our communities and our climate than previously thought.

To use natural gas responsibly, we must diligently measure the long term impacts of this energy source and also put in place requirements that will phase out its use over the timeframe of a few decades.

One model is the recent approval for the Footprint Power gas-fired electric plant in Massachusetts. It will sit at the same location of a closed coal-fired plant. The evaluation of its greenhouse gases did not simply compare it to the old coal plant. Instead, as the result of a settlement with Conservation Law Foundation, the plant developers agreed to binding annual emissions limits and a retirement date of 2050. These measures keep the facility’s operations in line with the Massachusetts greenhouse gas reduction requirements.

Similar requirements should be routine for any new natural gas project in our region. It only makes sense to first carefully evaluate the real climate impacts over the life of the project and compare those to a range of other alternatives. And we should not approve projects that increase polluting greenhouse gas emissions when compared to other alternatives or export to somewhere else the environmental problems from fracking. If any projects do advance, their use must be limited to ensure they actually replace dirtier fuels and to make sure they retire in the timeframe needed to allow us to meet our greenhouse gas reduction targets.

A version of this article first appeared in the April 13, 2014 edition of the Sunday Rutland Herald / Times Argus 

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