Gas Pipeline – A Poor Choice

Oct 29, 2014 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

photo courtesy of garlandcannon@flickr.com

photo courtesy of garlandcannon@flickr.com

A healthy sign of maturity is making decisions that recognize longer term benefits and impacts. This holds particularly true for our energy decisions.

In a field as rapidly transforming as our energy sector, it is important to avoid making long term decisions that burden future generations with higher costs and pollution.

The steady march of proposals to build expensive new natural gas pipelines is one example. These are pipelines that will be in place for fifty to one hundred years – long past the time that climate change demands we move away from fossil fuels.

Customers will be paying for these new pipelines for at least fifty years. That is a long time. Kicking the can down the road and burdening future generations masks the real costs of these new pipelines.

Most Vermonters wouldn’t attempt to buy a car now with a 50 year loan. Sure the cost each month may be low, but even frugal Vermonters don’t expect to be driving the same car in 50 years, or saddling their kids with paying for it, and its inefficient fuel use half a century from now.

When the ballooning cost of the Vermont Gas pipeline to Middlebury soared by 40% the project proponents simply pushed the cost of the project on to future generations and then claimed the long payback justified the exorbitant cost increase.

Long term energy investments like a new gas pipeline need to make sense in the face of changing technology. If we simply ignore or gloss over the rapid improvements that new technology brings, we will be left investing in the equivalent of rotary telephones or typewriters when society has moved well beyond them.

Technology innovation and climate change demand that we take a much harder look at expanding our reliance on the use of fossil fuels. Lighting efficiency has improved ten-fold in the past few years thanks to LEDs. At the same time, cold climate heat pumps are rapidly becoming a cleaner and lower cost option for heating and cooling our homes and businesses. The cost of solar power has come down 90% in the past two decades and more homes, businesses and communities are taking advantage of this renewable option.

How does natural gas stack up to these newer, cleaner resources over the long haul? Not very well. That is why it is so disappointing to see Vermont Gas continue to claim that their projects provide benefits when their analysis is only short-term and based on a comparison to oil or propane. In 1974 an electric typewriter looked pretty good. By 1984 it was beginning to gather dust and was out of use entirely less than ten years later.

Addressing climate change demands a similar longer term and more realistic evaluation. If natural gas is expected to be a bridge fuel we rely on for only a few decades, then Vermont customers should not be asked to subsidize a new pipeline for more than 50 years. If a new pipeline is capable of delivering gas that could support a new gas-fired electric generating facility or increased gas use throughout Vermont and New York , then it fails to meet our long-term greenhouse gas reduction needs. And if the supply of gas comes from sources that use hydraulic fracturing or fracking, which produces more air and water pollution, then Vermonters use of gas is not helping the environment, it only exports environmental problems to other communities.

Vermonters deserve energy supplies that are clean, low cost and effective for generations. The rapid transformation of our energy sector means we have the opportunity now to move away from expensive and polluting fossil fuels more quickly than ever– but only if we make decisions based on realistic evaluations that recognize impacts over the long term.

A version of this article appeared in the Sunday October 26, 2014 edition of the Rutland Herald / Times Argus 

 

 

The Future of Energy Efficiency

Oct 23, 2014 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

StakeholderEngagement_PostcardEnergy efficiency continues to be our cleanest and lowest cost energy resource.

But efficiency doesn’t just happen. At five community forums in Vermont over the next two weeks, folks can come for dinner and conversation and help guide Vermont’s efficiency efforts.

The forums are FREE AND OPEN TO THE PUBLIC and will be from 6 – 7:30 p.m.

What works? What could be better? What would you like to see to make energy efficiency play a bigger role in your life, the life of your community, and in helping Vermont reach its 90% renewable goal by 2050?

Come join for dinner and conversation with your neighbors.

You can learn more and sign up here.

10/27     St. Albans,

10/28     Barre

10/29     Lyndonville

11/5       Bennington

11/6       Brattleboro

For every dollar we spend, we save $3 to $4. In 2013 alone, Vermont met over 13% of its electric supply needs with efficiency and saved Vermonters over $158 million dollars.

A recent score-card shows New England leading the way on energy efficiency. Massachusetts is ranked #1 and Vermont and Rhode Island – two small states – tie for #3.

Come help Vermont reach for the stars and make sure our energy efficiency efforts are meeting YOUR needs.

Climate Change March 2014

Sep 23, 2014 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Climate Change March 2014 (1)Most of my climate change advocacy has me working behind a desk or in front of a judge or other public official. It was a different experience for me to join over 300,000 people in New York City for the Climate Change March last Sunday.

To begin with, over 300,000 people equals half the population of Vermont. That’s a lot of people.

All of them calling for action on climate change.  That’s huge and inspiring.

A great reminder of why I do what I do.

Collectively the crowd showed a wide and worthy display of solutions and will. A huge banner read: “Vermont Says ‘No!’ to Nuclear Power.” I beamed when I saw it, proud that CLF had a hand in that result.

Another read “Burn Calories not Gas” — though that was next to a sign that read “I don’t want to meet Sandy’s family” I decided not to take that sign personally.

Two women in newspaper hats touted: “Carbon Cap.  Wanna Trade?”

Wearing my CLF T-shirt, I was stopped by one person who told me he was a Plaintiff in CLF’s lawsuit to protect Georges Bank from oil drilling. That work was in 1977. CLF has deep roots in this work.

I was only one person in a crowd of many. Climate change is a big problem and it takes all of us. Joining the community of the other marchers reminded me there are many hands to get this important work done.

Climate Change March 2014 (2)

Climate Change March 2014 (3)

You are a Movie Star

Sep 11, 2014 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Button-up-contestReally. You are. Your big break awaits.

This is a contest for you. Take out your cell phone. Create a very short video. Inspire viewers to take action to “Button Up” and lower their heating costs and help tackle climate change.

The competition runs September 2 to October 19. There is no entry fee. Prizes of up to $300 will be awarded in several categories.

For more details go to www.buttonupcontest.org 

When you button up your coat, you keep the cold air out and the warmth in. We need to do the same for our homes and other buildings—making them cozier, saving energy dollars, and reducing pollution.

Go ahead. Make a splash. Make a movie. Your Oscar awaits.

 

Fresh Air Ahead: Transition to Clean Energy Supplies

Sep 8, 2014 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

It is welcome news that the New England Governors are stepping away from a high-risk gamble with clean air and electric customers’ money. Shrouded in secrecy, the New England States Committee on Electricity (NESCOE) undertook efforts that were poised to tax electric customers – including customers in Vermont – to pay for bringing massive new gas pipelines into the region.

These pipelines would lock in polluting fossil fuel supplies for decades. The NESCOE efforts are now on indefinite hold. That’s good. The shoddy analysis supporting the plans collapsed after being exposed to the welcome sunlight of public scrutiny.

But as the region closes older and dirtier generating facilities – such as coal plants in southern New England, and Vermont Yankee here in Vermont – and as we move transportation and home heating away from gasoline and oil, we need to make sure we transition to cleaner supplies.

We still have homes to heat, lights to keep on and businesses to run. As a region, we have committed to reducing our greenhouse gases. Our efforts are a model for the rest of the country. Climate change demands that we reduce emissions at least 75% below 1990 levels by 2050. To meet this challenge, Vermont has set a goal of meeting 90% of all its power needs with renewable sources by 2050. If and how natural gas fits into this equation is one of the biggest energy challenges of the next decade.

Once touted as a panacea and a “bridge fuel,” the exuberance for natural gas is tarnishing. Pollution from gas leaks during transmission and extraction threaten to eliminate any of the possible climate benefits from natural gas burning cleaner than oil. But reliance on natural gas, at least in the short term, is not likely to go away. Most of southern New England relies on gas for heating. During the very cold days last winter, high demand for gas drove up short-term prices to record levels. These price spikes have fed a frenzy of cries for new pipelines.

The real challenge lies in reducing our overall reliance on gas. It is not an option to use as much gas decades from now as we use today.

The actions we take now in terms of gas pipelines or new gas supplies need to foster the transition to the next generation of cleaner supplies. Our clean energy transformation will not occur if all our energy dollars continue to prop up old technology and fossil fuels.

The model Vermont created with energy efficiency holds promise for our next clean energy transformation – transitioning away from fossil fuels. For pennies a day our investments in energy efficiency have saved money, reduced pollution and allowed us to avoid building expensive new electric power plants.

As we look at gas supply we can see that making wise use of our existing pipelines is a good place to start. We can make sure the pipeline capacity we already have is being well utilized before leaping to build expensive new pipelines as NESCOE contemplated. This starts with fixing leaks and creating opportunities for storage or contracts to address the few hours of a few days of high demand in the winter.

If new pipeline capacity is added, its lifespan should be limited. To move away from fossil fuels by 2050, any permit for a new or expanded pipeline should expire in 2050. We must recognize the useful life of a new pipeline and not allow it to saddle customers with costs and pollution for decades to come.

Any pipeline capacity increase should include a “system transformation charge.” Similar to the energy efficiency charge, this would recapture a portion of the expected economic savings and use those funds to enable more energy efficiency and renewable power supplies. These funds would allow customers to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels each year, making the possibility of using natural gas as a “bridge fuel” a reality.

A clean energy transformation is in reach. Vermont and New England can lead the way leaving cleaner air and a healthier planet for ourselves and for generations to come.

Problems with Natural Gas Pipelines

Aug 13, 2014 by  | Bio |  1 Comment »

Jumping from the frying pan and into the fire is not helpful when it comes to meeting our region’s energy needs. In transitioning away from coal and oil, jumping head first into decades-long commitments to natural gas is proving to be both expensive and dangerous. The exuberance for natural gas is showing some telling tarnish.

The high costs to our climate, our communities and our economy are becoming clearer to more people.

Senator Elizabeth Warren recently penned a strongly worded opinion piece in the Berkshire Eagle, opposing a new pipeline planned to run through Western Massachusetts. She concluded:

Before we sink more money in gas infrastructure, we have an obligation wherever possible to focus our investments on the clean technologies of the future — not the dirty fuels of the past — and to minimize the environmental impact of all our energy infrastructure projects. We can do better — and we should

She explained the need to move away from more fossil fuels, stating:

But our aim must be to reduce reliance on carbon based fuels, and than means careful consideration of clean energy alternatives as well as other natural gas pipeline alternatives that do not create wholly new infrastructure. For example, upgrading our old, methane- leaking pipes can help provide affordable power for businesses and consumers without threatening our families and our state

You can read the full text here.

Last week all the State Senators in Addison County Vermont, penned a similar critique highlighting the many problems of a planned new Vermont Gas Systems pipeline in Western Vermont. They stated that the projects

… represent not the development of a bridge fuel to move us forward, but more accurately a monumental, $200 million commitment — paid for largely by Vermonters — to remain where we are, consuming fossil fuels.

They encouraged a more careful evaluation of newer and cleaner technologies and of the long term greenhouse gas emissions of the projects.

You can read the full text here.

These articles reflect the growing concerns about new pipelines – many of which have been raised by CLF.

Our region has been leading in showing the nation how we can rely on cleaner and lower cost energy solutions from energy efficiency and renewable power. Billion dollar investments in new natural gas pipelines tie us to yesterday’s technology and growing pollution. We can and must do better.

Drinking Water – Too Precious to Pollute

Aug 5, 2014 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

The tragedy this past weekend that left more than 500,000 Ohio and Michigan residents without safe drinking water shows the real dangers of polluted runoff. Toxic algae blooms in Lake Erie left drinking water with dangerous levels of microcystin. More than 100 people visited area hospitals, with upset stomachs, dizziness, and vomiting after drinking contaminated water.

The dangers of toxic algae blooms are not limited to Lake Erie. Excess nutrients – especially phosphorus – from agricultural runoff pollute Lake Champlain.

Nutrients meant to feed farm crops instead runoff into Lake Champlain where they cause excessive growth of algae and other weeds. Toxic algae blooms in Lake Champlain have caused beach closings and are dangerous to people and animals. In 2012, Missisquoi Bay suffered a large fish kill as a result of particularly bad phosphorous pollution.

Blue-Green Bloom

Blue-Green Algae in Lake Champlain in 2011.

Keeping our waterways clean and healthy requires reducing runoff from farms. Earlier this summer, CLF petitioned the Vermont Agency of Agriculture to require stronger controls on agricultural runoff to protect Lake Champlain. As the situation in Ohio shows, the safety of the drinking water of thousands of Vermonters is at stake. Reducing farm pollution is manageable and necessary. In some circumstances, funding is available to assist farmers with pollution controls. Requiring improved management practices, such as fencing to keep cows and other livestock out of streams prevents direct pollution impacts. Creating buffers along streams can minimize runoff near fields. Reducing ditching and allowing water to flow more slowly cuts back on erosion after rainstorms. Careful enforcement can reduce overuse of fertilizers that feed algae instead of plants.

With nearly a quarter-million households relying on Lake Champlain for drinking water, we cannot afford to keep adding dangerous levels of phosphorus to the Lake. The experience in Lake Erie is a cautionary tale that we should heed in Vermont before it’s too late.

Stopping State Handouts for Sprawl

Jul 21, 2014 by  | Bio |  4 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.

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