(This story is by Patrick O’Grady, a correspondent for the Valley News, in which it first appeared Aug. 25, 2017.)
NORWICH — Taking aggressive action in Vermont to address climate change will not only yield environmental and health benefits but also present a tremendous economic opportunity for the state, panelists said at a Thursday night forum at the Montshire Museum.
Two Vermont legislators, a businessman and the executive director of a nonprofit addressed an audience of about 30 during the nearly two-hour discussion presented by the Vermont Natural Resources Council and Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility.
Dan Barlow, public policy director with VBSR, moderated the discussion and began by presenting some statistics on the current state of Vermont’s clean energy economy.
Barlow said there are 4,000 companies in the field of clean energy and that 1 in 16 jobs, or 19,000 total, in Vermont are in the sector. That represents a 30 percent increase from 2013.
“No other state can boast these sort of numbers. Clean energy is one of the fastest growing segments in the Vermont economy,” Barlow said.
With about $2 billion spent on fossil fuels in Vermont each year and 90 percent of it going to out-of-state interests, Vermont could benefit by seeing more of its energy dollars stay home, Barlow said.
“Imagine the impact of 2 billion more dollars moving around our local economy instead of being sucked out of state,” he said.
Strong support was expressed for a “carbon pollution tax” meant to raise revenue, curb consumption of fossil fuels and further expand the clean energy economy.
Panelist Dan Hoxworth, executive director of Capstone Community Action in Barre, said the pollution caused by carbon affects every Vermonter, but more so low-income residents. For years the government has subsidized a carbon-based economy, he said, when it should be taxing it.
“Ronald Reagan said, ‘You want less of something, tax it.’ So let’s tax it. Let’s put a price on carbon pollution and use market forces to reduce carbon dioxide emissions,” Hoxworth said.
A carbon pollution tax would “spur demand for innovative transportation alternatives and move the state away from the combustion engine,” he said. “In other words, let’s stop driving furnaces.”
Other benefits would be improved health for residents and less impact from weather-related disasters, proponents say.
Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas, D-Bradford, said four bills were filed in the last legislative session in what she termed a “short form.” The difference in each one would be how the revenue from a carbon tax, at the wholesale level, would be used. Three models would use it to reduce existing taxes, while the fourth option would be to send the money back to residents.
Copeland Hanzas stressed that there is a long way to go and a lot of debate ahead before the legislation is in its final form in the 2018 session.
Hoxworth said the four models would create a more progressive tax structure and aid low-income residents by reducing how much they spend on energy.
Copeland Hanzas said she is confident the state can craft a solution as was done amid concerns that acid rain was harming forests in New England years ago.
“We can figure out how to do this as well,” she said.
Another panelist, Mark Curran, CEO of Black River Produce in Springfield, talked about steps his company has taken to reduce energy consumption, including installing efficient lighting.
Curran said he is always looking for ways to reduce fossil fuel consumption, but he also must pay attention to his costs. One example was the installation of a wood pellet heating system when heating oil was close to $4 a gallon. Now oil is back down to a little more than $2 a gallon.
“It is hard to compete with that (selling pellets,)” Curran said. “I’m a businessman. I want to be green, but I have to look at the bottom line.”
Curran also said he installed an electric car charger for his 200 employees but it has never been used.
Rep. Jim Masland, D-Thetford, said there is a tax on home heating fuel that is used for weatherization projects, but that a carbon tax is trickier because if it raises the price of gas, then many residents in the Upper Valley would simply cross into New Hampshire. He said he does not want a tax that burdens low-income residents.
Johanna Miller, energy program director with the Vermont Natural Resources Council, said “carbon pricing” must be part of any solution and be viewed as an economic benefit.
“We keep money in the state, help people get rid of fossil fuels and transition to clean energy technology,” Miller said. “It will make the economy stronger and put people to work.”