Protecting Farmland and Communities – Keeping Act 250 Strong

Apr 23, 2014 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

act-250

photo courtesy of Geoff Dude flickr.com

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 |  2 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.

natural-gas-expansion

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 

Gender Justice, Environmental Justice

Apr 3, 2014 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

gender-justice

CLF Intern, Taylor L. Curtis with Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin, photo courtesy of Zak Griefen

CLF is pleased to highlight the great work of our Vermont intern, Taylor L. Curtis, who is the lead and driving force behind a month-long symposium Sex, Gender, Expression and the First Amendment Project (SGE1) held at Vermont Law School from March 20–April 12 – exploring the intersection of free expression, sexuality, sexual orientation, and gender identity.

Inspired by the artwork of Evie Lovett, the program includes panel discussions, a film, an art exhibit and Gayla, a celebration of the historic queer art form of drag. Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin and Vermont Supreme Court Justice Beth Robinson, and transgender rights attorney and activist Jennifer Levi provide lively presentations and support for the event.

“As Evie’s work inspired the creation of this Project,” Taylor L. Curtis said that her “hope is that the events challenge our understanding of sexuality and identity and encourage discussion beyond politics of inclusion. To achieve real social change we need to be careful we are not just asking or fighting to be included in systems and institutions that are fundamentally broken. By dislodging the centrality of equality rhetoric and challenging the demand for inclusion – through free expression – we can reinvigorate the queer political imagination with fantastic possibility!”

These insights resonate in the environment movement. The struggles for sexual and gender justice and environmental justice are similar. By identifying the root causes and most prominent hurdles of social justice movements today we begin to understand how to achieve transformative change that benefits the environment, its people and all justice movements.

You’re Fired! – I Quit!

Apr 2, 2014 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Entergy-VYThe owners of the troubled Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant chose to “quit” before they were “fired.”

The recent regulatory decision by the Vermont Public Service Board highlights the long and troubled history that led most Vermonters to completely lose faith in the owner’s ability to responsibly manage the plant.

In stark terms the Board recognized that the “sustained record of misconduct has been troubling to observe over the years.”  Specifically, the Board stated:

“In its twelve years of operating in Vermont, Entergy VY has failed to comply with numerous Board orders and statutory requirements. It has failed to follow procedural requirements that protect the integrity of Board proceedings. The Company has engaged in unacceptable conduct that erodes public trust and confidence in its capacity to act in good faith and to engage in fair dealing; an investigative report prepared by Vermont’s Attorney General concluded that Entergy VY  ‘repeatedly misled State officials with direct misstatements and repeatedly failed to clarity misperceptions.’” (emphasis added).

This bad track record was on display throughout years of regulatory review. Seeing the writing the wall, it is no surprise then that Entergy chose to “quit” before being “fired.”

The Board’s decision allows for a winding down of Vermont Yankee’s operations with its closure within a year. The agreement approved by the Board does not provide much additional value for Vermont, but when the bad egg you were going to fire “quits,” you’ve already won.

Green Affordable Housing in Vermont

Feb 26, 2014 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Putting the green in affordable housing may not be easy, but it is long overdue.

For decades, manufactured homes have been an affordable home ownership option. Unfortunately, some manufactured homes are the equivalent of gas guzzlers. They burn through dollars and heating fuels like there’s no tomorrow. How affordable is a home when fuel bills eat up all your savings?

An open house on March 14 and 15 from 10 a.m  to 2 p.m in Wilder Vermont shows a new alternative.

VERMOD High Performance Homes has teamed up with Efficiency Vermont and the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board and others to develop a more truly affordable manufactured home option.

Ten pilot homes are being built and sited in mobile home parks around Vermont. The homes in Vergennes, Starksboro, Hardwick and the Upper Valley, are making a difference. Families will live in a comfortable home that contains no toxic materials, and is built to last.  Monthly heat and utility costs are less than $20.

That’s AFFORDABLE and GREEN.

There’s more information about this project at the website of the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, with plans, specs, photos and project information.

Come see for yourself what this innovation means to advance comfort, lower costs and reduce pollution for new homeowners. Open House Flyer with directions available here. 

 

A Real Vermont Yankee Settlement?

Jan 13, 2014 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

This article first appeared in the Sunday January 12, 2014, edition of the Rutland Herald / Times Argus

Vermont-Yankee-Settlement

courtesty of thewordsonpaper.blogspot.com

The announcement before Christmas that the state of Vermont and Entergy, the owner of Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, had reached an agreement about its closure and one final year of operation left many folks breathing a collective and hopeful sigh of relief.

The initial reports seemed promising. Entergy and the state rolled up their sleeves, put their bad blood behind them and found some common ground.

Money would be available for economic development in Windham County to help build up its economy without Vermont Yankee. And money would also be available for more renewable power to further Vermont’s transition to cleaner power.

A path was laid out for a speedier cleanup, and the fights about back taxes and legal fees that have already exceeded more than $6 million would end. That hopeful news came a day before Christmas and was regarded as a welcome present by many. But actual delivery on some of the promises will be as elusive as Santa Claus and his reindeer — more in the realm of things we like to believe in, rather than the reality of what will actually happen.

The agreement calls for quick approval by the Vermont Public Service Board. It must be fully accepted by the end of March or all bets are off.

In the coming month, the parties will examine the agreement, and the state and Entergy will explain why the settlement should be approved. An additional public hearing will be held Tuesday, January 14 and a final day of technical hearings will take place at the end of the month.

Given Entergy’s past track record, there is good reason to be skeptical about the proposed settlement. Vermont has been down this road before.

A previous agreement required Vermont Yankee to close by March 2012. Almost two years later, the plant is still running. Rather than shut down, Entergy sued the state, claiming Vermont’s requirements were preempted and precluded by federal law.

Vermonters have learned a lot about preemption in the past few years — and the importance of avoiding obligations that may run afoul of this principle. It is thus telling that the proposed settlement reserves Entergy’s “right to challenge any requirement or obligation imposed by state law on the ground that such law is preempted … ”

In view of Entergy’s past legal challenges, we can expect these new obligations will be honored only when they suit Entergy’s needs.

Some of the thorniest but perhaps most important issues in the settlement concern the plant’s decommissioning and site cleanup. The Vermont Yankee plant began operating in the 1970s, a century after Alexander Graham Bell’s first telephone conversation. No one expected that the plant’s closure and cleanup might not even begin until another full century had passed. Yet even with the current agreement, that is likely.

The funds available now for decommissioning are about half what is needed. Entergy has not added a dime to the fund since it purchased the plant in 2002 and has relied instead on its investment savvy to grow the fund.

Until the fund at least doubles in value, there will be no decommissioning. Given past performance of the stock market, that may take a while.

Even if the fund grows rapidly, Entergy alone will determine when there is enough money to begin decommissioning. And it’s only after Entergy makes the decision that it must seek federal approval to begin decommissioning within 120 days. Nothing stands in the way of Entergy waiting 60 years before it begins to decommission and clean up the site.

In the end Vermont will still have a tired, old — but closed — nuclear plant for decades to come. This is a disappointing reality that belies at least some of the spirited sugar coating and hopes about the agreement’s effect.

Gas Pipeline Expansion Approved in Vermont

Jan 8, 2014 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Just before Christmas, Vermont regulators approved a significant expansion of a natural gas pipeline in the western part of the state. You can read the decision here.

During the proceedings, Conservation Law Foundation raised serious concerns about the greenhouse gas emission impacts of the project. CLF made recommendations on how to reduce those impacts with significant expansion of energy efficiency.

As we are sitting in a polar vortex, it is clearer every day that reducing greenhouse gas emissions is imperative.

If all we do is replace oil with gas, we will not meet our climate change needs. We need to reduce fossil fuel use, including natural gas, now.

CLF’s advocacy put the issue of climate change and the effect of expanding fossil fuel infrastructure front and center in the case. The project began with an overly simplistic and unexamined evaluation of emissions that failed to consider full life-cycle greenhouse gas impacts.

CLF showed the flaws in this analysis. We showed the need to include the emissions from drilling and fracking of gas, and the need to guard very carefully against increasing emissions.

The final decision recognized the perils of climate change and the importance of reducing emissions. It also recognized the need for better assessments and mitigation of greenhouse gas impacts.

The decision requires development of more robust energy efficiency. Although a fairly small step, it recognizes the need to  to address greenhouse gasses from fossil fuel use and can serve as a model for future projects.

A proposal for the next phase of the project has already been submitted. CLF will be looking for further emission reductions. We can’t afford to build projects that destroy our climate.

Getting Around — WITHOUT the Circ Highway

Nov 22, 2013 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

After decades of fighting the Circ Highway – an outdated massive highway ring-road once planned around Burlington Vermont – CLF is now part of the unanimous support for the final round of projects that will replace the Circ.

The very good news is that the 34 projects being advanced will improve existing roadways and intersections, significantly advance bicycle, pedestrian and transit, protect floodways and go a very long way toward better matching transportation in the areas outside of Burlington with the long-term community needs.  Supporting growth centers instead of sprawl and making sure EVERY project includes facilities for bicycles and pedestrians will help more people get around.

And perhaps best of all, the entire suite of alternatives comes in at HALF THE COST of the full Circ highway.

More details on the performance metrics are here.

The final projects make great strides and include many alternatives CLF and others advanced nearly a decade ago, as well as many projects that have been priorities for towns near Burlington.

The unanimous support for a broad suite of projects bodes well. The Governor of Vermont attended the final meeting of the “Circ Alternatives Task Force” – a big group of state and town officials, environmental & business advocates and others that spent the past 30 months developing these recommendations, which were put forward in three phases. Governor Shumlin praised the group’s hard work and commented that our efforts exceeded his expectations when he announced in 2011 that the Circ Highway would not be built as planned and established the Task Force to come up with alternate solutions. Unlike the Circ, these projects are all do-able and many are already underway.

By the numbers this is what the projects look like:

  • Roadway miles enhanced and shared shoulders created          7.5
  • Number of intersections improved                                          26
  • Interstate Interchanges upgraded                                            2
  • Park & Ride spaces created                                                  ~120
  • New Transit Services created                                                   4
  • Miles of shared Use Paths and sidewalks created                        8
  • Flood Hazard Mitigation Projects                                               1

More work remains, but it is terrific that some much needed and more environmentally friendly projects will move forward.

Driving Climate Change

Nov 20, 2013 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

climate-change-in-vermont

photo courtesy of Paul Krueger@flickr.com

A version of this article appeared in the November 17, 2013 edition  of the Sunday Rutland Herald / Times Argus.

The biggest contribution to climate change in Vermont comes from how we get ourselves around. As a rural state we rely on cars — and they burn a lot of gasoline, producing significant greenhouse gas emissions. To responsibly address climate change, we must take a hard look at our cars and our tailpipes and take a big bite out of our gasoline use.

Fortunately electric vehicle use is on the rise. According to Drive Electric Vermont, the number of electric vehicles on the road in Vermont quadrupled in the last year.  Currently more than 400 electric vehicles are registered across the state. In the last three months alone, Vermont saw a 50 percent increase in electric vehicles.

Vermonters are rapidly embracing this cleaner choice, and new initiatives will make it easier and less costly for more people to “drive electric.”

Vermont is one of eight states — four in New England and California, New York, Maryland and Oregon — that recently announced efforts to collectively put 3.3 million electric vehicles on the road by 2025 and develop the fueling infrastructure to support them. 

Electric vehicles can be either all electric or can be plug-in hybrids that rely on gasoline engines and can also plug into a socket for power. For most commutes, all-electric vehicles provide ample range between charges — about 80 miles — and can be plugged into an outlet either at home or work. Plug-in hybrids have the same travel range as gasoline-powered cars.

The cost of electric vehicles dropped over the past two years. Leasing an all-electric car costs about $200 per month and is quite comparable to the cost of many other car leases. The big savings is in pollution and fuel costs.

All-electric cars have one quarter the fuel cost of gasoline-powered cars. They run on the equivalent of about $1 per gallon gasoline.

Including all the costs over the lifetime of the car, electric vehicles cost less than a gasoline-powered car. Many makes and models of electric vehicles are currently available, including cars from Ford, Chevrolet, Toyota, Nissan, Mitsubishi and Tesla.

Operating electric cars reduces soot and greenhouse gases and gets us closer to meeting our climate goals and using our power sources more efficiently. Electric cars are more efficient than gasoline cars: They use more of the power available and produce less wasted heat.

In terms of greenhouse gases, one all-electric vehicle produces less than one-third of the emissions of a Subaru Outback. And riding a bicycle or walking near an electric car is like a breath of fresh air, since they don’t leave you breathing smoke and fumes.

To run clean electric cars, we must consider the source of electricity used to power them — and keep that electricity supply clean and renewable. Looking into the future,  all-electric cars will be useful in better managing our electric power grid as we work to achieve Vermont’s goal of 90 percent renewable energy use.

To encourage use of electric vehicles, Vermont already has low interest loans for public charging stations. And with its partner states Vermont will be developing additional incentives: improved building codes that will make it easier to construct new car charging stations, additional electric vehicles in public car fleets, financial incentives to promote cleaner cars, and lower electricity rates for electric vehicle  charging systems.

Vermont needs electric cars for many important reasons — to meet our climate goals, reduce air pollution, break our addiction to oil and save families money. Electric vehicles provide a piece of the transformation that is urgently needed to move away from fossil fuels and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The recent devastation in the Philippines is another critical wakeup call that reminds us all why we need measures like these.

The efforts of Vermont and other states, represent an important piece of the transformation required to head us toward cleaner and lower-cost ways to get around.

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