Congress Can Let New England States Plan for Future Storms, or Not

Dec 3, 2013 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment


The US Army Corps of Engineers works on many coastal projects in Texas. Will Congress let them coordinate with states in New England?

A little over a year ago Superstorm Sandy barreled up the east coast and wreaked havoc on coastal communities and in many states inland. The impacts were notably fierce in New Jersey and areas in and around New York City, but Rhode Island and other states also suffered serious impacts. Homes, businesses and the local infrastructure which creates communities – phone and electrical lines, roads and highways, drinking water and sewage systems, and TV and mass communication systems – were knocked out for days. Some folks couldn’t return to their homes for weeks and thousands of people along the east coast lost their homes completely. It’s estimated that 285 people were killed.

The significant challenges that coastal states face with increasingly large storms in the era of climate change are clear. Luckily, we have excellent policy tools designed specifically to help address the uncertainties of climate change in the National Ocean Policy, and ocean user groups across our region support its use. The National Ocean Policy uses regional ocean planning, improved science and data, requires better agency coordination and relies on deep involvement by stakeholders – all of which are needed to tackle these types of management challenges now. As one state official said, “We can either plan now or we can let nature plan for us.” This is especially true when the anticipated future increase in the number and severity of storms will make these challenges larger and more difficult. We have the tools of the National Ocean Policy at hand, but if some in Congress get their way the New England states could be barred from working with the federal agencies necessary to plan for coastal storm impacts.

The House of Representatives has recently passed the Water Resources Reform and Development Act, also known as WRRDA. The House bill contains a harmful additional provision, known as a rider, which would prohibit the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from coordinating with coastal states to implement any ecosystem-based management or regional ocean planning program. This provision, led by a Congressman from land-locked Waco, Texas, seeks to prohibit the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a key coastal and ocean management agency, from coordinating with coastal states. This means that even though many states are conducting planning efforts to help protect their ocean resources and support their state’s ocean economy, they would not be able to coordinate with the U.S. Army Corps on any projects under the National Ocean Policy. While driven by an anti-federal sentiment, the Flores rider actually weakens the ability of states to carry out ocean planning and coastal management for the welfare and health of its own citizens.

On the bright side, the Senate passed a version of the WRRDA bill containing the National Endowment for the Oceans (NEO), which would establish a beneficial fund for improving coastal management and resilience. Championed by energetic Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, NEO will help set up an endowment supporting work by state, regional, tribal and federal entities, as well as nonprofit organizations and academic institutions to fund the baseline science, monitoring, and observation data needed to improve ocean use management, including economic development that will create jobs and support coastal economies.

We need ocean planning and we need all federal agencies — including the US Army Corps of Engineers – to be closely engaged with states and other federal agencies. We can’t be held hostage to the whims of a nonsensical political agenda when we have real work to get done; the difference could be destroyed communities and lost lives. Thankfully, large numbers of Senators and Representatives from New England and other states have spoken out in support of the National Ocean Policy and a National Endowment for the Oceans. Now the Congress needs to let states prepare for their own future by rejecting the irresponsible Flores Rider and enacting the National Endowment for the Oceans.


Driving Climate Change

Nov 20, 2013 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment


photo courtesy of Paul

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.

“NO” to Expanding Gas Pipeline in Vermont

Nov 13, 2013 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

At a time when climate change demands we do everything we can to move away from fossil fuels, building a new gas pipeline in Vermont moves us in the wrong direction.

The Vermont Public Service Board must decide if a new 41 mile pipeline will advance the “public good” of Vermont.

Conservation Law Foundation has participated in the technical hearings and provided expert testimony that the project will INCREASE greenhouse gas emissions, damage our climate and lock us in to fossil fuels for fifty to one hundred years.

Now it is your turn. Tell the Board what you think. You can provide written or email comments to the Vermont Public Service Board at this link.

Some issues to highlight can include:

  • 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 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 is the beginning of a bigger project to supply gas across Lake Champlain to New York. It also moves Vermont closer to being able to access gas supplies from fracking in the United States.

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.

The Good, the Hopeful and the Ugly: Clean Energy in America and New England in the Fall of 2013

Sep 25, 2013 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

First, the good:  There’s some good news to report: The Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the State of Connecticut are well on the way to implementing key provisions in the clean energy laws that CLF helped craft. These provisions ensure that for years to come the residents of both states will enjoy the benefit of clean and cost-effective renewable energy generated by solar and wind power.

In Massachusetts, the Boston Globe reports, the utilities are proposing to buy 565 Megawatts of wind power from six wind projects in Maine and New Hampshire.  At least two of those projects will be built by Boston based First Wind.

The Connecticut utilities, reports the Hartford Courant, are proposing to purchase 270 Megawatts of clean power, with 250 of those Megawatts coming from a wind farm in Aroostook County, Maine and 20 Megawatts from a solar project in Sprague and Lisbon, Connecticut.

For over a decade, Conservation Law Foundation has been advocating for states to encourage and require these kind of cost-effective long term contracts between utilities and renewable energy developers (in financial jargon, “going long”). These kinds of contracts are a smart and cost-effective way of managing the transition to a clean energy economy and are consistent with the restructured competitive electricity system and markets that CLF helped to create in our region in the 1990’s. CLF supported similar contracts to make the Cape Wind project possible and worked to shape the laws in both Massachusetts and Connecticut that enabled and mandated the contracts that have just been proposed in both states.

And from Washington, hopeful news: Environmental Protection Agency administrator (and wicked big Red Sox fan) Gina McCarthy announced that EPA is moving forward with the regulations required by the Clean Air Act to regulate emissions of Carbon Dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas causing global warming, from new power plants. As CLF noted in our statement hailing this move:

The emissions limits proposed by EPA are critical to reducing the climate pollution that is raising sea levels, increasing extreme weather events and imposing devastating consequences on people and countries around the globe . . . For the past ten years, actions by the northeast states and countless power plant owners in the region have demonstrated that reducing greenhouse emissions is not only good environmental policy, but also enhances the region’s economic prosperity by more efficiently and cost effectively making and using electricity. Our long experience in decreasing electric sector greenhouse gas emissions in New England, while also reducing energy costs, has blazed a path for EPA to follow in implementing the requirements of the Clean Air Act.

 In a moving and unusually personal essay, Ms. McCarthy explained the regulations and put them the context of her long career in Massachusetts that began with her work as a town public health agent:

I didn’t plan for a life built around protecting the environment. In fact, I started my career as a health agent in the town of Canton, Mass., and later worked for the Stoughton Board of Health. But at some point I realized that at its core, the issue of a clean environment is a matter of public health. The two are inextricably linked.

 This is the perspective that we need to embrace – focusing on the practical connection between reducing emissions and protecting the public health.  This perspective underlay the efforts to slash dangerous emissions in the Northeast and is a solid foundation for the work that EPA is now doing nationally.

And, sadly and unsurprisingly, the “Ugly” is found on Capitol Hill in Washington DC: Recently, I wrote here about what a great choice President Obama made when he nominated Ron Binz of Colorado to be a Commissioner (and the Chairman) of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Mr. Binz is a reasonable and moderate man with an even temperament, a good sense of humor, deep knowledge of the energy world, the ability to see things from a range of perspectives (drawing on his broad experience as a consumer advocate, businessman and state energy regulator) and a clear sense of how to manage the difficult transition that the energy system is experiencing.

It is therefore very disappointing that his nomination is “in trouble.” Mr. Binz is being attacked for having had incidental contact with a lobbying firm hired by others to respond to the massive and unprecedented campaign against his nomination. The closest thing to a substantive complaint against Mr. Binz is this: he has stated that if the Federal government continues to move forward with the regulation of greenhouse gases that, unless carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) is perfected and made commercial for natural gas fired power plants so they can run without contributing to global warming, gas will no longer be usable as a major fuel at some point in the future.  In public remarks, that reflect very mainstream thinking in the energy industry, he noted this reality and said that absent CCS the move away from gas must begin before 2035, using the phrase “dead end” to describe the situation.  If you have an appetite for deep engagement of complex energy issues featuring Jim Rogers, the retiring CEO of Duke Energy and Mr. Binz check it out on Youtube – the “controversial” remarks used to create a phony controversy can be found around the 30 minute mark.

Given the current state of affairs on Capitol Hill it is possible, if not likely, that this excellent nomination will fail. That would be a shame indeed.


Public Hearing: Vermont Gas Pipeline Expansion

Sep 9, 2013 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

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

Vermont Gas Systems Expansion

Tuesday evening, September 10, 2013

7:00 p.m 

Middlebury Union Middle School, 48 Deerfield Lane, Middlebury, 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 to Middlebury and then beyond. 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 is the beginning of a bigger project to supply gas across Lake Champlain to New York. It also moves Vermont closer to being able to access gas supplies from fracking in the United States.

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.

A Critical Moment At A Critical Agency as the Baton Goes from Wellinghoff to Ron Binz (Hopefully)

Aug 28, 2013 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

There are few more important, and more obscure, agencies in Washington D.C. than the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission the regulator of the wholesale electricity transmission systems and “bulk” (imagine big quantities, like giant tubs from Costco) U.S. electricity markets.

FERC oversees an incredibly complex electricity system.  Our grid meshes together rural systems, where power lines stretch hundreds of miles without interruption, with dense and sophisticated urban networks where millions of people are packed together and drawing power to charge cell phones, watch television, use computers, and make  hospitals, factories, homes and offices all hum.

The age of the elements of these incredibly diverse systems range from “physically touched by Thomas Edison” to “installed hours ago” with all that suggests in terms of technological sophistication.

On top of that physical complexity from a legal and regulatory perspective the American system is a bewildering mix of business and regulatory models with some places served by utilities that own generators and others, like nearly all of New England, served by utilities who are actually generally forbidden from owning power plants. And in contrast to many other parts of the world we mix together privately and publicly owned electricity systems, with many customers served by private “Investor Owned Utilities” but many others served by public entities like “municipal light companies” – and just to make life even more complicated our large generation is mostly owned by private companies with some giant exceptions in the form of hydroelectric dams and other generators owned by States like New York or Federal entities like the Tennessee Valley Authority.

This last bit of complexity is rooted deep in history, notably the declaration by Franklin Roosevelt, when running for President, that he generally favored private ownership of electricity generation and systems but “that where a community — a city or county or a district is not satisfied with the service rendered or the rates charged by the private utility, it has the undeniable basic right, as one of its functions of Government, one of its functions of home rule, to set up, after a fair referendum to its voters has been had, its own governmentally owned and operated service.”  This idea played out in his long run as President when the cornerstones were laid for both gigantic federally owned systems and for the FERC model of regulated private systems.

It is no wonder, given this complex mix of elements that some think the American electricity system is ungovernable.  But a few leaders have succeeded in using the tools available to them to reshape this unwieldy system and steer it in a good direction.  One of those leaders is the current, and soon to be former, FERC Chairman Jon Wellinghoff.

During Chairman Wellinghoff’s tenure FERC has instituted important reforms – pushing time and again for changes that remove the barriers to the new clean resources, like energy efficiency and renewable energy (like wind and solar) that are the rising stars of our energy system.   Under his leadership FERC has pushed aggressively against entrenched policies that gave a leg up to existing generators and utilities simply because they were already in place.  The idea of “pay for performance” that meant that new technologies could earn revenue from providing services to the electricity might sound simple and obvious but FERC has had to fight to make that idea a central tenet in its decision making, beginning with the critical idea (incubated in New England) that efforts to reduce electricity demand should be compensated in markets just like resources that generate power.  Application of the pay-for-performance principle has meant that new technologies that flourished in a small pilot market here in New England can spread across the nation – opening doors for electricity storage systems that will revolutionize the way we generate and use energy.

The biggest single effort that FERC has undertaken during the Wellinghoff era is almost certainly the Order 1000 initiative. Order 1000 mandated thoughtful regional planning of the electricity system across the nation and consideration of public policies, like state renewable energy standards and greenhouse gas reduction mandates, in electricity system planning and infrastructure decisions, among other systemic reforms.  This mammoth effort to reshape the current national electricity system is still in progress but should pave the way for significant progress in managing the energy system transformation and transition beginning to unfold around us.

The departure of Jon Wellinghoff from FERC does not have to mean the end of progress on all of these fronts.  FERC has maintained a collegial and effective decision making process that cuts across party lines (which is a pretty stunning thing to say in 2013 about any institution with a mix of Commissioners from the two main political parties).  Very often its decisions are unanimous or feature a very focused and specific dissent from one or two Commissioners disagreeing with some specific aspect of the decision but accepting much of what the majority are doing and saying.

This uniquely effective institution will maintain its balance and continue to make progress if Ron Binz, the nominee proposed by President Obama to take over as Commissioner and Chairman of FERC, is confirmed by the Senate.  Mr. Binz is accustomed to working across party lines as he comes from the quintessentially “purple” state of Colorado where he had a solid record as a consumer advocate, chair of the state utility commission and energy expert and innovator.

We are in a time of change and challenge: coal plants are retiring and the United States shows signs of finally getting serious about using energy efficiently while reaping the power of the wind and the sun.  Such times call for steady leadership at the essential Federal energy regulatory body.  That is what Jon Wellinghoff has shown – and it is what Ron Binz can provide going forward.

VT Gas Expansion Thwarts Climate Needs

Aug 26, 2013 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment


photo courtesy of

If your doctor puts you on a diet to prevent major health problems, it is a bad idea to fill your pantry with potato chips. Simply hoping you don’t eat the chips staring you in the face is a bad way to try losing weight.

Likewise, if you want to reduce fossil fuels and combat climate change, it is a bad idea to blindly expand pipelines that deliver these fuels to your doorstep and beyond. These are pipes that will be in place for the next 50 to 100 years. In that timeframe we need to move away from dirty fossil fuels, including fracked gas.

In Vermont, the proponents of a proposed gas pipeline expansion are sadly ignoring the long term impacts.

Instead of proposing a project that actually meets our climate change diet needs, the proposed gas expansion in Vermont is doing the equivalent of filling our energy pantry with potato chips. Chips that we will stare at every day and try not to eat in order to stay on our diet.

This is a bad idea.

The gas cheerleaders, including the Shumlin Administration, are hoping folks will only eat the chips as a small snack. But sadly they are not proposing any limits on the use of the gas, or sizing the project to meet our very limited dietary needs. They are not even considering the use of the full pipeline capacity in their analysis.

Testimony from Conservation Law Foundation provided by Dr. Elizabeth Stanton, explains the considerable uncertainty underlying the claims of Vermont Gas and states:

“As long as there is significant uncertainty in the emissions from natural gas, Vermont risks adopting long-lived natural gas infrastructure that is not compatible with meeting Vermont’s 2050 greenhouse gas reduction goals. Approving Vermont Gas’ request represents a gamble, on the part of the PSB, that Vermont’s current and future sources of gas will be at the low end of the current range of possible emission rates in the literature and not at the higher end, and that the uses of the gas will only replace oil or propane. Both assumptions are unlikely and as a result the project proposed will most likely increase greenhouse gas emissions over the life of the project.” (Stanton Testimony at 9-10).

The testimony from the Public Service Department, which is responsible for the State’s energy plan, and helping us meet our climate goals, provides various manipulations of others’ testimony but still simply assumes all the gas in the pipeline will replace oil use. (Poor testimony at pg 8). That is an analysis that is far too limited.

The testimony from the Agency of Natural Resources recognizes that if any gas supply sources have emissions as high as some of those documented, then the claimed emissions benefits of the project “could be reduced or even result in a scenario of increased GHG emissions relative to oil.” (Merrell Testimony at pg. 3). Instead of recommending ways to reduce that impact, however, the Agency calls for annual reporting. While more information is always good, the Agency’s suggestion will be about as effective as closing the stable door after the horse has already run away.

It is past time for Vermont to begin taking its climate change goals seriously. Expanding our addiction to fossil fuels by expanding gas pipelines in Vermont is irresponsible.

Good News from Washington DC – Really, Not Kidding, Good News from Washington DC!

Aug 23, 2013 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment


President Obama nominated Gina McCarthy to head the EPA, which was confirmed by the Senate.

Good policy and good action by government is dependent on having good people in charge.

Down in Washington we now have proof that even in the age of grid-lock and partisan warfare a competent, professional and effective leader can rise to a critical position in our government to lead and manage the crucial energy and climate transition underway.

That proof came last month when Massachusetts native (and resident) Gina McCarthy was sworn in as Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency after a record-setting delay.

Many members of the CLF staff have years of experience working with Gina during her long career in Massachusetts state government and then her successful run as Commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection.

There are a few hallmarks of Gina’s work and method of operation that are particularly notable and important.

First, she brings a deep respect and appreciation for the importance of public participation. Many of us at CLF have seen the “McCarthy Principle” that “In general, the more people who are involved in making a decision and the more information the decision-makers have the better the decision will be” in action.

Second, she is totally (and sometimes brutally) honest.  I can remember Gina cutting to the end of a negotiation by bluntly reviewing a list of items under discussion: “you will get 1, 3, 5 and 9 but I can’t deliver on 2 and 8, although I wish I could, and 4 and 6 are a bad idea.”  Her legendary charm and sense of humor are essential to making this style work.

Third, Gina is not afraid of complicated subject matter.  Her engagement of climate policy, transportation and the electricity systems display a willingness to delve into the details, trust experts and tackle tough and thorny issues.

Gina, in her time in state government in Massachusetts and Connecticut, and during her time in Washington, has not gotten everything right. I can tick off almost as many examples of CLF squaring off in agency proceedings or in court to oppose efforts she has championed as I can list examples when we stood with her and her agency.  But it has always been clear that she has been listening, thinking and doing all she could to move her agency in the right direction to protect the public health, the environment and to build thriving communities and she has done it as honestly and as openly as she could.  And isn’t that what matters?

Vermont Gas Expansion Increases Greenhouse Gases

Jun 14, 2013 by  | Bio |  5 Comment »

photo courtesy of kara

photo courtesy of kara

Expanding natural gas in Vermont moves us in the wrong direction to address climate change. The expansion increases greenhouse gas emissions, compounding Vermont’s contribution to climate change.

In detailed testimony filed with the Vermont Public Service Board, Conservation Law Foundation explained that the simplistic evaluation by Vermont Gas that the expansion will reduce emissions is simply wrong. Testimony from Dr. Elizabeth Stanton shows on pages 18-19 that expanding natural gas increases emissions more than three million tons over 100 years and brings environmental costs of an additional $76,000,000.

This project is not a good deal for Vermont.

Dr. Elizabeth Stanton shows that the emissions from the full life-cycle of the project result in significant increases in global warming pollution. This project will be around for a long time as will its greenhouse gases. Dr. Stanton explains on pg 9:

“The natural gas life cycle is the set of all processes related to the use of natural gas from its extraction, processing, and distribution, to its end-use combustion. Life-cycle analyses are studies that determine the upstream and downstream consequences of a particular product or service used by consumers.”

Its overall emissions include leaks of methane, a gas 25 to 72 times more potent than carbon dioxide when it comes to climate change.

Testimony by Dr. Jon Erickson, Dean of the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources at the University of Vermont shows that expanding gas results in locking us in to fossil fuels at a time our climate and energy goals require moving the opposite direction. He states at pg 6:

“Any expansion of the delivery of natural gas to customers in Vermont has the potential to substitute for other nonrenewable, carbon-based fuels (such as fuel oil), but also has the potential to displace current and future uses of renewable energy (such as wood-based home heating or district heating).”

His testimony goes on to state at pg 8:

“Beyond GHG-related risk, the extraction of natural gas supplies is using increasingly environmentally damaging procedures such as hydro-fracking, a practice that Vermont has temporarily banned within State borders. Environmental regulation in other States and Canadian Provinces poses a risk to the long-term stability of natural gas supplies.”

Let’s be honest. Increasing our reliance on fossil fuels, including natural gas, is a bad move.




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