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.

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.

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