Vermont: The Little State that Could?

– by Rachel Smolker, Biofuelwatch

I am fortunate to live in the tiny state of Vermont, a state that has boldly led the way on so many issues it’s hard to list them all. We were the first to pass same-sex marriage and to take serious steps to make health care accessible to all. We outlawed billboards altogether and passed Act 250, a sophisticated mechanism for protecting the landscape against wanton development. That, in fact, led Vermont to be the last state in the nation to be colonized by Walmart. We were also the first state to ban fracking. We fought Entergy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission long and hard demanding they shut down the dangerously rickety Yankee Nuclear power plant. Recently, at long last and against all odds, we “won” a semi-victory on that front.

Now Vermont has taken another bold step: denying permission for development of a dirty biomass burning facility, deceptively referred to as the North Springfield Sustainable Energy Project.

That facility would have burned 450,000 tons of wood annually, harvested from the “Green Mountain” state’s just barely recovering forests. The state’s Public Service Board is required to review big development proposals and issue (or deny) a “certificate of public good” (CPG) in order to proceed with the project. In this case, the decision was that the facility was not a public good. Many biomass facilities around the country and the world have not won permits, or have been abandoned en route to development due to economic concerns. But Vermont may be the first to deny a permit on the basis of sound reasoning.

The Springfield facility was denied, in part, on the basis that cutting and burning trees could not be assumed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The Public Service Board commented that “the evidentiary record supports a finding that the Project would release as much as 448,714 tons of CO2e per year, and that sequestration of those greenhouse gases would not occur until future years, possibly not for decades, and would not occur at all in the case of forest-regeneration failures.” They also concluded that it would be more cost effective to do energy conservation, efficiency and load-management than to burn 450,000 trees a year for a pittance of electricity.

Vermont already has the wood-burning McNeil Generating Station (noted as the largest polluter in Vermont), and the Ryegate biomass facility. Another new biomass facility is proposed and pending for the town of Fairhaven. These facilities, like others of their ilk, release about 50 percent more CO2 per unit of energy generated than a coal burning facility, and far more particulates (increasingly recognized as a cause of all manner of illnesses and diseases). And these facilities are shockingly inefficient, generally only around 25-35 percent efficiency, which means energy from one out of every 3 or 4 trees is captured while all must be cut and transported and all contribute to pollution and greenhouse gases. Vermont, the “green” state already ranks among tops in the nation for asthma and suffers the consequences of a veritable army of dirty residential wood heating stoves running at full throttle for half the year.

Burning up forests in inefficient facilities for a tiny bit of electricity is hardly “green” and certainly not clean. Besides, without billboards, how would we conceal the clear cuts and denuded landscapes from view of tourists, who come specifically to see the trees: a mainstay of the state’s economy?

It is inspiring to see common sense dictate energy policies for a change. I can’t help thinking of Vermont as “the little state that could.” Big industries and developers roar down the tracks and flash their wares, assuring us our concerns are trivial and our values old-fashioned, or that we are too tiny to matter. But citizens in the state do not so easily roll belly up. As Gayle Coger Morabito, an activist involved in opposing the Springfield biomass facility stated: “We are reassured that our voices can be heard. It’s hard work, but patience does pay off. We certainly have the facts and figures our side.”

However, there seems to be a never-ending parade of challenges that keep parading down the tracks. Vermont Gas (owned by the Canadian Gaz Metro which transports gas from Alberta to Quebec and onwards) wants to extend a pipeline that would transport fracked gas across the state, under Lake Champlain to eventually supply the Ticonderoga pulp mill in New York State. Unfortunately, the Public Service Board, did recently grant a certificate of public good for the gas pipeline in spite of an outpouring of public opposition. Apparently transporting fracked gas through the state is a “public good” even if fracking in the state is deemed illegal. Resistance to that pipeline will likely advance to another level.

Meanwhile, Enbridge (part owner of GazMetro) is pushing yet another pipeline to transport tar sands oil across the northern edge of the state en route to Portland Maine for export. So far twenty-nine towns in the state have already passed resolutions opposing that one.

Even opposition to large-scale wind developments is raging in the state.

Vermont’s senate just passed a bill that would enhance public participation in decision making about the siting of energy projects. Public participation is exactly what is needed.

So what will be the future of the little state that could? Vermont could shine a leading light on the path to a liveable future, focusing on reducing demand for energy rather than embracing the doctrine of endless growth, and looking towards small-scale, non-combustion renewables to fill essential needs. The state is already positioning itself at the forefront of the local food movement, and has long prioritized the protection of its landscape. Vermonters should be taking note of a nationwide and global trend: for better or worse, farm lands have become a hot commodity for investors seeking solid, reliable ways to use their money. Why? Because in the chaotic future we face, where environment and economy are on a collision course, food and water will be most assuredly paramount. Forests and healthy ecosystems will be our best defense against the ravages of a warming and polluted world.

A glance back through history reveals that the collapse of great civilizations has been directly linked to over-exploitation of natural resources. One can only hope that Homo sapiens can finally learn from that history. Vermont’s decision not to stumble any further down the path towards burning its trees for electricity is a tiny but significant step in the right direction. If we can keep the pipelines and extraction industries out and focus on learning to live together and in balance, perhaps “the little state that could” will manage to deliver toys and treats to the children of the future after all.

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