Vermont Gas Pipeline: A Bridge to Nowhere?

May 23, 2013 by  | Bio |  3 Comment »


Photo: DWeller88 @ flickr

It is important to build bridges, but we need to make sure they get us where we need to go.

The proposed expansion of the Vermont Gas pipeline may be more a minefield than a bridge, as one recent Vermont weekly  and one recent national energy blog reported.

The project will cut through valuable wetlands and farmland in Addison County. Future plans include crossing Lake Champlain, moving Vermont closer to gas supplies from fracking that is ongoing now in New York and Pennsylvania.

Proponents of the project, including Middlebury College and Vermont Gas advance an overly simplistic evaluation suggesting more natural gas is needed in Vermont because it is cheaper and cleaner than the oil and propane it will replace. Others suggest natural gas is a bridge to cleaner supplies that are in our future.

All bridges are not created equal. Natural gas is still a fossil fuel. The proposed gas pipeline will be in place for fifty to a hundred years. In that timeframe we need to solidly break our addiction to fossil fuels – including natural gas.

So what part of the project is in place to make sure natural gas is actually a valuable bridge and not a new addiction? Nothing. And that is sad.

We can do better than throw up our hands and blindly accept expensive and environmentally damaging new pipelines at a time when we should be moving away from fossil fuels.

Here are some ideas to start moving Vermont in a cleaner direction when it comes to new pipelines:

  1. Provide a more sophisticated evaluation that answers where this pipeline is taking us in fifty years.
  2. Stop providing unqualified support. If this is a cleaner solution, make sure it lives up to its promise. Sensitive and valuable environmental resources should be off the table.
  3. Meet climate goals by dramatically increasing efficiency, prohibiting supplies from fracking and limiting the use and lifespan of any new pipeline.

If we build bridges, let’s make sure they get us to a place we want to be.

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Fighting Bad Bills in Rhode Island

May 13, 2013 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

My colleagues in CLF’s Rhode Island office have been doing some important work that deserves attention this legislative session. Two of their efforts stand out: opposing the governor’s attempt to create special legislation to import power from Hydro-Quebec, and opposing the Rhode Island House leadership’s attempt to create a state Commerce Department that would take over permitting functions from the Department of Environmental Management and Coastal Resources Management Council.

Rhode Island State House

Rhode Island State House, courtesy of Mr. Ducke @ Flickr

You’ve likely read more here (or here, or here) about Hydro-Quebec. The company, which (unsurprisingly, given the name) produces power from large-scale hydroelectric dams located throughout the Canadian province of Quebec, has been making a strong push to sell this power to states throughout New England. Hydroelectric power might not be so bad on its own, but Hydro-Quebec has some serious issues. Not least of these is that the most prominent proposal for transmitting additional power from Quebec to New England is a proposed transmission project through New Hampshire – the Northern Pass – that is being developed by New Hampshire’s dirtiest utility and is, in its current form, a deeply flawed proposal that may not provide meaningful environmental benefits. And, also distressingly, Hydro-Quebec has sought special legislation in each of the states it has been courting.

Here in Rhode Island, the governor has been pushing one such piece of special legislation; CLF Staff Attorney Jerry Elmer has been pushing back. The governor’s bill would require National Grid (Rhode Island’s only major electric utility) to solicit proposals and then enter into a long-term contract for a large-scale, 150-megawatt hydroelectric project. This requirement would not only displace but likely eliminate local, small-scale renewable projects that the current long-term contracting statute was designed to benefit. At the same time, it would likely drive up energy costs, sending Rhode Island dollars to Canada. And, again, importing more power from Quebec through this mechanism seems calculated to advance the poorly conceived Northern Pass project in New Hampshire. As Jerry told the House Committee on Environment and Natural Resources, it is rare that environmental organizations, energy utilities, existing renewable and conventional power plant owners, and ratepayer advocates unite so seamlessly and forcefully as they have in opposition to the large hydropower bill. And the representatives from these diverse interests all recognized Jerry’s leadership, frequently introducing their own testimony with the phrase, “As Mr. Elmer said …” – certainly a sign of effective advocacy.

Meanwhile, Rhode Island House leadership has been touting an “Economic Development Package” of bills designed to enhance the business climate in Rhode Island. Unfortunately, one of these bills would move DEM’s permitting functions and all CRMC programs and functions to a newly created “Executive Office of Commerce.”  The purpose of these moves would be to ensure that environmental permitting delays do not hold up business development.

At a hearing before the House Finance Committee, CLF Vice President Tricia Jedele pointed out the many reasons this proposed bill makes no sense whether viewed through the prism of policy or law. (You can view her testimony here, beginning midway through minute 162.) The bill ignores the reasons for permitting delays under the current regime: some delays are the result of the severe staff cutbacks DEM has suffered in the last several years; others are perfectly justified as a way to protect Rhode Island’s greatest asset – its natural resources – against exploitation. Moving permitting functions to a new Executive Office of Commerce would not restore DEM staff or better prevent exploitation.  Moreover, the bill suggests a tension between business and environment, even though a robust business climate and a clean, healthy environment can peacefully coexist under an adequate permitting regime. Perhaps most importantly, though, the bill could throw Rhode Island’s environmental permitting programs into total disarray. Many permitting programs are founded on authority delegated to the state by EPA under a host of federal environmental laws. These programs are subject to EPA oversight, and tinkering with them could easily result in EPA’s withdrawing approval and taking over permitting functions itself. Needless to say, this is not the goal of the commerce bill. Instead, Tricia told the Finance Committee, a simple solution would be to leave DEM and CRMC’s functions alone, to staff them adequately, and to add staffers to the new Department of Commerce who can help guide businesses through the permitting process. This argument was well-received, and CLF now has the opportunity to work with the House to reform the bill.

Again, my colleagues have been too busy doing this work to call attention to it, but I think it’s important to take a moment to recognize just how valuable they are to Rhode Island and its environment.

EPA Must Follow the Law, Set Rules for Power Plants

May 10, 2013 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

While harm from climate change becomes more apparent every day, EPA is dragging its feet in setting much-needed limitations on greenhouse gas emissions from new power plants. This failure is a plain violation of the Clean Air Act. So CLF recently took the first step to spur EPA into action. Working with attorneys at Clean Air Task Force, we let EPA know that if it does not act, we will sue.

Kite on Marconi Beach

Kite on Marconi Beach, courtesy of EandJsFilmCrew @ Flickr. Recent extreme weather caused significant damage at Cape Cod’s Marconi Beach.

The Clean Air Act requires EPA to issue regulations limiting emissions of air pollutants that may “endanger public health or welfare.” We know well that greenhouse gases drive climate change and therefore endanger public health and welfare in many ways: droughts pose risks to our food supply; sea level rise increases flooding of vulnerable communities; and extreme weather events threaten to wash coastal infrastructure out to sea. Nevertheless, during the early and mid-2000s, EPA all but ignored greenhouse gases. Many states and environmental groups (including CLF) sued to make EPA do something.

First, we argued, greenhouse gases are air pollutants subject to EPA regulation. Second, we said, EPA had to decide one way or the other whether greenhouse gases were dangerous; if so, the Clean Air Act imposes an absolute duty on EPA to regulate them. In a fine opinion by now-retired Justice Stevens, the Supreme Court agreed with us: greenhouse gases are pollutants subject to EPA regulation, and EPA had to decide whether they are dangerous. Two years later, EPA decided that greenhouse gases do, in fact, pose a danger to public health. This means EPA is required by law to regulate them.

After all that, EPA did begin to regulate greenhouse gases. However, it did not limit emissions from the single largest category of greenhouse gas polluters – power plants – which account for nearly 40% of the nation’s carbon dioxide emissions. If any polluters need robust regulation, power plants do. Finally, after more pushing from CLF and other environmental organizations, EPA published proposed standards for greenhouse gas emissions by power plants.

Under the Clean Air Act, these proposed standards started a clock – EPA had one year to issue final rules. Instead, EPA announced on Day 364 that the final rules would be delayed indefinitely. This delay is both illegal and wrong. EPA now has sixty days to fix its error and issue final rules that seriously address the most pressing problem of our time.

If it does not, CLF and Clean Air Task Force will turn to federal court to compel EPA to act.

Spring Peepers: The Sounds of Spring

Apr 24, 2013 by  | Bio |  2 Comment »

spring peeper new england

Spring peepers are the sounds of spring. Photo: Leslie Science & Nature Center’s photostream @ flickr

Do you ever wonder, when spring begins, what that chorus of what sounds like sleigh bells, loud crickets, or young cackling chicks is? It is that sound that I look forward to every spring.

Here in New England, we call the sound spring peepers: a frog that is tan or brown in color with a cross on its back whose size is one inch to one and one-half inch weighing 0.11 and 0.18 ounces. The subspecies in the north is called Pseudacris crucifer but some common nicknames are pinkletinks, tinkletoes, and pinkwinks. They live in forests and regenerating woodlands near ephemeral or semipermanent wetlands.

The male spring peeper makes the call on warm days and nights via a vocal sac located by its throat, which expands and deflates like a balloon beginning in March and carrying on through June during their breeding season to entice the females. Pseudacris crucifer lays around 900 to 1000 eggs per clutch under vegetation at the water’s base. Once hatched, they will transform into tadpoles and will become adult spring peepers in about 8 weeks and are ready to leave the water to spend the rest of the year in the woods.

Due to the loss of wetlands, climate change, pollution, and habitat loss their populations are significantly decreasing which has negative effects on the overall ecosystem since birds and snakes often prey on frogs. It has been reported that toad embryos appear to be dying due to climate change and, as temperatures vary unpredictably, the frogs’ immune systems lose potency causing them to succumb to a disease known as chytridiomycosis which has been killing amphibians around the world.

This is just another example of what climate change is doing to our amphibian friends and why it is so important to do what we can to stop climate change and the extinction of yet another species.

So, open up your windows on those warm nights and enjoy the sound of those little peepers with the big voice.

Energy: Out with the Dirty, In with the Clean

Apr 23, 2013 by  | Bio |  2 Comment »

Come join Conservation Law Foundation and our allies THIS SATURDAY in Burlington, Vermont for a discussion on Vermont’s Energy Choices.

Vermont’s Energy Choices: Old Dirty Problems and Clean Energy Solutions
Saturday, April 27th, 1:30 PM at the Billings Auditorium at UVM in Burlington

The time is NOW to move away from dirty sources of energy such as tar sands, nuclear, oil and coal. Solutions are available now to move us away from expensive, dangerous and polluting energy.

Come hear national and international experts on the problems of dirty energy – from fracking to tar sands – and  the real-world successes of renewable power – including community based renewable power in Europe.

Throwing up our hands is not an option. Come find out how to make a clean energy future our reality.

You can sign up and more information here:  See you Saturday!

Massachusetts Fosters Electric Vehicles with New Municipal Program

Apr 22, 2013 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Massachusetts Electric Vehicle Incentive Program DEP Municipal

MA DOER Commissioner Sylvia, Chelmsford Town Manager Paul Cohen, MA EOEEA Secretary Sullivan, and MA DEP Commissioner Kimmell at the Earth Day announcement in Chelmsford. (Photo credit: Emily Norton)

Today the Patrick Administration took an important step toward meaningful deployment of electric vehicles (EVs) in Massachusetts. Building on momentum from the Massachusetts Electric Vehicle Roundtable that CLF co-hosted with the Administration in March, the Patrick Administration launched a new incentive program yesterday: the Massachusetts Electric Vehicle Incentive Program for Municipalities. The Administration announced this new program on Earth Day at events in Greenfield and Chelmsford. CLF attended the announcement, and you can watch a video clip of MA Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Commissioner Kimmell and MA Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Sullivan announcing the new program in Chelmsford here and here (pardon the occasional wind!).

Following the MA EV Roundtable in March, the Administration created the Massachusetts Electric Vehicle Initiative to promote EVs in the Commonwealth. The new incentive program, focused on helping increase use and visibility of EVs in Massachusetts towns, is a noteworthy first step for the MA EV Initiative. This program will help municipalities purchase EVs as well as fund installation of charging stations. The program offers $7,500 grants per EV and $15,000 per publicly accessible charging station to eligible communities. The program, which is administered by the MA DEP,  has $2.5 million available for these grants.

At yesterday’s Earth Day launch for this program, Secretary Sullivan noted that increased deployment of EVs is an essential step toward meeting the climate commitments contained in the MA Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA). Increased EV deployment is indeed an important step if the Commonwealth is to meet its mandatory greenhouse gas emission (GHG) reduction targets, and CLF is pleased to see the Commonwealth taking initiative with this measure. At the same time, the big picture for GHG reductions in Massachusetts still requires significant progress that can only be achieved through markedly stepped up action. The Administration has not met the GWSA’s deadlines for adopting and implementing regulations to reduce GHGs commensurate with the requirements of the GWSA across all sectors – including transportation. While steps to promote EVs will help move the needle, the newly announced Initiative must complement, rather than serve as a substitute for, much more expansive action that is urgently needed across the transportation sector and beyond.

The Commonwealth’s press release following the launch indicated that this program “is the first of what the state plans will be other state incentive programs to increase electric vehicle deployment and ease their use.” CLF is pleased that the Patrick Administration is taking its commitment to fostering meaningful deployment of EVs in Massachusetts seriously, applauds the Commonwealth for this important first effort, and is optimistic for meaningful next steps for the MA EV Initiative. We hope that the successful launch of this program will help fuel a broader effort to reduce GHGs and ‘green up’ all of our transportation options!

Going to Church in the Senate: The Ministry of Responding to Climate Change

Mar 25, 2013 by  | Bio |  6 Comment »

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse has made a number of passionate speeches throughout the week regarding climate change impacts and the dire need to address climate change. He is establishing himself as a courageous leader on the single most important issue facing this country – the reality of a changing climate and our moral, economic, and human obligation to respond to the threat we continue to blindly build. He will not let his colleagues (or the country) forget the seriousness of this issue and the need to respond to it.

Interestingly and importantly, this past week, Senator Whitehouse spoke with strong references to Pope Francis and his call to Catholics to care for Creation – a connection we rarely hear in the Senate. In fact, a more common theme these days, among congressmen and clergymen alike, has been to invoke the Bible to justify a do-nothing approach to climate change, arguing that the idea that we can irreparably harm our environment runs contrary to scripture.

As a Roman Catholic myself, I can confidently say that the Church’s call to advance social justice on the one hand (i.e., protecting the poor, caring for the Earth and its creatures) and protect human life (i.e., opposing abortion, birth control, etc..) on the other hand, creates a conflict for voters that has often been exploited and manipulated by the dominant political parties in the United States. Indeed, there even have been a number of masses I have attended during election years past when I have been made to feel that a candidate’s position on abortion is the only deciding factor when voting. This isn’t because the Church asked me to vote one way or the other, but it was because “life” was only viewed through the single issue of abortion, and not the global lense that would allow one to consider the disproportionate impact that our continued reliance on fossil fuels, and our steadfast refusal to respond to climate change is already having on the poorest of the poor and on Earth’s natural systems.

I hope that by choosing the name Francis, our new Pope has done more than signal a concern for the poor and the environment. I hope that by choosing this name, and by being a former student and teacher of chemistry, Pope Francis’ mission will be to remind Catholics everywhere that they can believe in the science of climate change, advocate for the protection of all creation, and for social justice and the poor, and still be a good Catholic. Indeed, without such advocacy “justice will be unachievable.”

St. Francis of Assisi preached the duty of men to protect and enjoy nature as both the stewards of God’s creation and as creatures ourselves. On November 29, 1979, Pope John Paul II declared St. Francis to be the Patron of Ecology. During the World Environment Day 1982, Pope John Paul II said that St. Francis’ love and care for creation was a challenge for contemporary Catholics and a reminder “not to behave like dissident predators where nature is concerned, but to assume responsibility for it, taking all care so that everything stays healthy and integrated, so as to offer a welcoming and friendly environment even to those who succeed us.”

It would be truly inspirational if the Church would begin to pray during its Prayers of the Faithful that our political leaders make the right choices when it comes to caring for our natural world; and then, perhaps, Catholics would learn as much about the ministry of our new Pope during mass as they might from the Senate floor.

Clean Energy Being Derailed by Messy Process in Connecticut?

Mar 22, 2013 by  | Bio |  2 Comment »

On a sloppy March 19, while our changing climate threw a late winter storm of ice, snow, hail, sleet and rain at New England, a legislative hearing room in Hartford Connecticut was the focus of regional energy policy attention. The  Energy and Technology Committee of the Connecticut Legislature was holding a hearing on a bill to revise the Renewable Energy Portfolio standard of Connecticut – the Nutmeg State’s piece of the regional effort that has inspired a rising tide of wind and solar energy development across New England.

The bill before the committee that day, which bears the spine tingling and exciting name of “SB 1138 – An Act Concerning Connecticut’s Clean Energy Goals” was a complex piece of legislation making a whole series of changes to the important law that is Connecticut’s part of a successful regional effort to build new clean energy facilities.

An odd and disturbing subtext was this: at the very same moment that the hearing was going on the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection (DEEP) announced and released online a study of the very program being revised by the proposed law.  This meant that as DEEP Commissioner Dan Esty was introducing and explaining a law to change a critical energy and environmental program his Department was releasing a draft study, which would go through two months of public process, to decide whether to make the very kind of changes that the bill he was introducing would make. This is very similar to a group of kids playing baseball in front of plate glass window while promising to have a really focused conversation about where (and where not) was a safe place to play ball, vowing to do so right after their game ended.

To be fair, there is a real urgency to one part of the bill: the provision that would enable Connecticut to move quickly, perhaps in cooperation with other states, to enter into long-term contracts with windfarms and take advantage of the limited extension of the federal renewable energy incentives that (unless Congress changes its mind yet again) only apply to projects that are in construction by the end of 2013 – a deadline that seems like a long ways away, unless you are trying to build a large facility like a windfarm, in which case you understand that getting contracts in place as soon as possible is needed to have shovels in the ground and construction underway by the end of the year.

But another topic was the main focus of the hearing: the proposal to allow large Canadian hydroelectricity to participate in the program, a change long sought by Canadian provinces who seek to import money in exchange for power – and a change long opposed by those who wanted to keep the program focused on building new wind and solar resources for New England.

The hearing brought forth a flood of testimony. While there were over 100 pieces of written and in-person testimony presented to the committee it appears that only the state-owned Hydro Quebec utility, who would likely handsomely benefit if the bill became law, and Northeast Utilities, who are trying to build the infamous Northern Pass transmission line to bring that power to market, testified in favor of the very controversial change in eligibility benefiting large Canadian hydropower.

CLF’s testimony on Bill 1138 criticized that change in the law as disrupting a very successful renewable energy program, as did the testimony of business leaders and labor unions and many, many others. Our testimony graphically illustrated the ever-rising progress of wind power in New England as RPS-inspired projects came on line and fed clean power into the regional grid.Rise of wind energy in NE 2009-13

Some members of the committee, including Rep. Brian Becker, actively raised the question of whether the urgent portion of the bill that would allow Connecticut to move forward with procurement of wind and solar this year, in tandem with other states, could be severed from the other controversial portions of the bill that could be reviewed and discussed separately. No real response was ever given to this very legitimate concern.

In the aftermath of the hearing some of the environmental and business groups who testified delivered a letter to the legislative leadership summarizing the situation and, extraordinarily, officials in Massachusetts state government expressed concern about the bill – telling reporters that:

Massachusetts has taken the lead, working very closely with other New England states, in putting together a regional procurement plan for renewable energy. While we embrace a wide range of clean energy initiatives, we have serious concerns about how Connecticut’s proposed changes to its renewable portfolio standard will affect the region’s renewable market

Undeterred by this criticism and controversy and ignoring the clear issues of good government and process, as well as the need to foster business development through clear and consistent rules adopted after careful process, the Committee met and considered a very slightly revised version of the bill on March 20 in a meeting recorded in an online video.  Eight members of the Committee expressed real concern about the deep and systematic changes being made to a critical clean energy program. They, once again, aired the idea of severing the one small provision that needed to be moved rapidly, considering the rest of the bill after the study, already underway, was completed. Again, they did not get a public response.  The final vote of 16-8 shows who on the Committee stood where.  It is indeed striking not one of the 16 who voted “yea” was willing to defend their vote.

All signs point to the bill continuing to move ahead at a very rapid clip – in fact it may come to the floor of the legislature for a vote as soon as March 27 – when new gun laws being considered in the wake of the Newtown tragedy will be absorbing public interest.

If you live in Connecticut, or know someone who does, please use our action alert to urge the legislative leadership to stop the rush towards changing this important energy and environmental program.  Instead, very specific and timely action to join with other states to enter into long term contracts with new windfarms is needed and the rest of the changes to the renewable energy program should be carefully studied and considered.

CLF Proposes Clean Energy Incentive for Electric Vehicle Purchases

Mar 21, 2013 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Government officials, industry representatives, and environmental advocates agree: it’s time to increase the number of electric vehicles (EVs) on the road in Massachusetts. EVs emit significantly less carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and other pollutants into the air we breathe. Yet the market for EVs in Massachusetts is currently small, due largely to higher price tags, lack of incentives and little infrastructure. Thankfully, the enthusiasm at the recent Massachusetts Electric Vehicle Roundtable indicates that we are poised to do more for EVs in Massachusetts.

Earlier this month at the MA EV Roundtable, I described a new idea for encouraging EV purchasing in the Commonwealth that CLF has developed with Sonia Hamel of Hamel Environmental Consulting. The Clean Energy Bundle Incentive would provide purchasers of EVs free renewable electricity for charging their EVs at home. To achieve this, the state would purchase bulk renewable electricity and distribute it to interested customers as free energy. The state could ensure that the renewable energy, or the funds used to purchase the renewable energy, flows from existing Massachusetts renewable programs and efforts like the Renewable Energy Portfolio Standards (RPS). The state could choose to distribute the energy as either a direct rebate, in the form of a debit card, or as part of a contract. While the amount could be adjusted, we think that $2,000 is in the right ballpark for an amount to distribute per customer.

Bundling free, clean energy with the purchase of an EV stands out as an excellent option to incent EV purchases in Massachusetts. CLF believes that purchasing incentives are key to meaningful deployment of EVs in Massachusetts, and  we favor incentives that set new energy use paradigms, increase market alignment, and are educational for consumers. The Clean Energy Bundle Incentive achieves all three of these goals.

CLF believes the Clean Energy Bundle Incentive will be an effective incentive in the current EV market, and is bolstered by a study by McKinsey and PlanNYC on EVs in New York City. That report found that due to the still-fledgling market of EVs, lack of infrastructure, and small number of potential purchasers, incentives should target “early adopters,” a group committed to investing in green technology and being recognized for their investment. The Clean Energy Bundle Incentive targets these “early adopters” by doubling their investment in green technology, as their EV will run on renewable energy.

While the Clean Energy Bundle Incentive is a new concept for EVs, the idea has been piloted in the realm of natural gas vehicles. Honda is currently offering a $3,000 debit card for use at any Clean Energy brand gas station with the purchase of a Honda Civic Natural Gas, which gives the average owner about three years worth of fuel.

If you are interested in learning more about the Clean Energy Bundle Incentive or joining our advocacy efforts, I encourage you to contact me at jrushlow[at]