Levine: Climate policy innovation -- a uniquely Vermont solution

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Recent oil spills, short-sighted decisions and global climate talks highlight clearly that we still have a long way to go to meet our climate change goals. The Keystone oil spill destroyed farmland and threatened drinking water. Just days later, Nebraska regulators approved the route for an expanded Keystone pipeline. This will carry even more toxic oil across the United States and make reducing greenhouse gas emissions that much harder. In Bonn, Germany, as nations gathered to put the goals of the Paris climate agreement into action, the projections showed that nations are far from achieving their goals.

Vermont is in the same boat. As a state we have done a lot to increase renewable energy and energy efficiency. But we still use a lot of fossil fuels for driving and heating our homes. Vermont set ambitious goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But instead of reducing emissions in the past five years, Vermont's greenhouse gas emissions have increased. Being far from on track to meet our goals, we are not even headed in the right direction.

The release of a new, innovative climate pricing policy brings hope to getting Vermont back on track. The "ESSEX" plan, authored by leading Vermont businesses, academics and low income advocates, proposes to place a gradually increasing price on fossil fuels and rebate 100 percent of the fee to Vermonters on their electricity bills.

The ESSEX plan provides a uniquely Vermont solution. Nearly all of the money we spend on fossil fuels — about $2.3 billion annually — is shipped out of state or out of the country, and fosters more polluting pipelines. In contrast, Vermont's electricity supply comes from within the region and is among the cleanest in the country. Two utilities already provide 100 percent renewable to their customers and the other utilities are well on their way. By moving more of our fossil fuel use to electricity, we can begin to meet our greenhouse gas reduction goals while lowering costs and supporting local jobs.

Vermont is already seeing a steady growth of electric vehicle use, solar power and heat pumps. Their costs have come down in recent years and the technology continues to improve, allowing them to perform better each year. By further encouraging this transformation with lower electricity costs, more Vermonters will be able to take part in the transition to cleaner energy while saving money and reducing pollution.

By rebating the pollution fee to all Vermonters on their electricity bills, the ESSEX plan will give Vermont the lowest electricity costs in the region. This gives a needed boost to transitioning away from all fossil fuels. The cost of operating an electric car or using a heat pump to keep your home warm will be far lower than the cost of keeping your old car or furnace running. The plan includes additional rebates for low income and rural Vermonters who must spend more of their budget on energy. Apart from saving money, the ESSEX plan is an investment in modernization that helps attract families and businesses to Vermont. It requires no new administration, and builds on the existing tax and utility structures that are already in place.

Vermont innovation has long been a hallmark of many of our successes. Getting back on track to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and keep Vermont healthy and prosperous is no different. The ESSEX plan shows that carbon pricing can succeed in reducing pollution while growing the economy and encouraging investments for clean electric buses to bring kids to school, clean snowmaking equipment for ski areas, and supporting clean high tech businesses for jobs throughout the state. We all win.

Sandra Levine is a Senior Attorney with Conservation Law Foundation in Montpelier. To learn more, visit www.clf.org. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.


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