Meg Hansen: Clean Heat Standard may worsen carbon emissions and class divide

This commentary is by Meg Hansen, president of the Ethan Allen Institute, a policy research and educational nonprofit organization.

The Global Warming Solutions Act requires Vermont to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by specific amounts by 2025, 2030 and 2050. Failure to meet these mandatory targets would allow any person to sue the state, at taxpayers' expense, for noncompliance. 

The Global Warming Solutions Act established a 23-member Vermont Climate Council to create an action plan. Of the council’s 200 recommendations, the Clean Heat Standard bill has received the most attention. It has been passed by the Vermont House, will likely glide through the Senate, and soon reach the governor's desk. 

If the Clean Heat Standard is enacted, Vermont will become the first state in the nation to regulate all fossil-based home heating fuels. The unelected three-member Public Utility Commission — not the Legislature — will craft the details and administer the program. 

The Clean Heat Standard puts the “polluter pays” principle into practice by forcing companies that sell fossil-based heating fuels to 1) switch to bioenergy, namely, biofuels and wood burning systems; or 2) pay for weatherization projects and installing electric cold-climate heat pumps. Small and family-owned fuel dealers will have to slap the extra costs onto consumers. The aim is to make fossil fuels so expensive and inaccessible that Vermonters will be forced to heat their homes with substitutes. 

Biofuels are made from plants and agricultural waste (e.g. ,corn ethanol and soybean biodiesel), and methane recaptured from organic waste, treated wastewater, livestock and farms. Though these fuels are renewable, they are not carbon-free.

Biofuel combustion emits about the same amount of CO2 per unit of energy as petroleum; burning wood releases more carbon than coal or natural gas; and methane is a powerful greenhouse gas that warms the planet by 86 times as much as CO2. 

Proponents believe that biofuels are inherently carbon-neutral, that is, clean, because the CO2 released when they are burned is 100 percent equal to the CO2 that was removed from the atmosphere by the plants when they were alive. In a groundbreaking study, however, DeCicco et al. disproved the assumption of carbon neutrality by showing that the CO2 uptake by plants offsets merely 37 percent of the CO2 emitted when they are burned as biofuel (Climatic Change, August 2016). 

Vermont policymakers are therefore wrong to exclude the carbon emitted during biofuel and wood combustion. Due to this omission, the bill underestimates the greenhouse gas emission impact of replacing fossil fuels with bioenergy. It is not their only mistake. 

The Clean Heat Standard bill states that the PUC will hire third-party consultants to determine the total carbon emitted by various biofuels. This lifecycle analysis will calculate the greenhouse gas emissions related to producing, transporting and consuming the fuel. It will not, however, count the high emissions caused by converting agricultural land to grow crops like corn and soybean for biofuel production. 

Previous lifecycle analysis studies on biofuels, which informed the federal Renewable Fuel Standard (2005) and California's Low-Carbon Fuel Standard (2009), underestimated the emissions impact of land use conversion. On account of new modeling that corrects these critical accounting errors, we now know that biofuels release greater greenhouse gas emissions than fossil fuels. 

When rainforests and grasslands are cleared to grow biofuel crops, the carbon stored in the soil and plants is released as CO2. Fargione et. al showed that altering natural ecosystems into cropland releases 17 to 420 times more CO2 than the annual GHG reductions that these biofuels would provide by replacing fossil fuels (Science, February 2008). A more recent study found that corn ethanol (the most common biofuel) emits at least 24 percent more carbon than gasoline (PNAS, February 2022).

John DeCicco (University of Michigan Energy Institute) stated bluntly in a 2016 interview, “When it comes to the emissions that cause global warming, biofuels are worse than gasoline. The underpinnings of policies used to promote biofuels for reasons of climate have now been proven to be scientifically incorrect … Hard data, straight from America’s croplands, now confirm the worst fears about the harm that biofuels do to the planet.” 

Disregarding the evidence, Vermont lawmakers purport that the Clean Heath Standard will achieve the carbon reduction targets by forcing Vermonters to burn carbon-intensive fuels. 

The question that the Vermont Climate Council and legislators are attempting to answer, using schemes like the Clean Heat Standard, is not, “How do we heat homes and power cars without fossil fuels?” Rather it is, “How do we get most Vermonters to live in smaller homes and drive fewer cars?” 

Curbing society-wide consumption is the only way to curb carbon emissions. But it will not occur voluntarily and cannot be imposed without an imminent threat, as proven by the Covid-19 lockdowns

The authorities thus settle on penalizing the middle class — a chronically abused demographic that is teetering on extinction in Vermont. Climate council member Jared Duval demonstrated this punitive impulse when he admitted that the Clean Heat Standard will “be disruptive to business models that have been based on just selling as much fossil fuel as you want.” 

How will bio-alternatives reduce consumption? By shuttering local companies and forcing middle-income workers and families to downsize or leave the state. Ultimately, the Clean Heat Standard will raise carbon emissions and deepen Vermont’s shameful chasm between the wealthy and welfare-dependent. 

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