Commentary by David Ellenbogen
vice chair of the Sierra Club Vermont Chapter
Vermont history is replete with examples of Vermonters recognizing when it is time to change business as usual. For example, years ago burning trash – long a Vermont tradition – was recognized as a practice that was harmful both to the environment and to the health of our citizens. Banning the practice was a common sense solution. More recently, we required proper disposal of used tires and motor oil.
Despite these important steps, today’s biggest single contribution to air pollution in Vermont – the burning of fossil fuels – continues unchecked. The coalition known as Energy Independent Vermont, of which the Vermont Sierra Club and its 3,000 members is proudly a member, believes the time has come to account for the carbon pollution released by burning fossil fuels. The environmental damage resulting from this pollution has a monetary cost, and it is not small. Prices for a ton of airborne carbon pollution (including estimates from Exxon Mobil and the U.S. government) range from $40 to $109 (source). This is money we are all already tacitly paying in the form of a degraded environment and increased health risks.
Imagine a neighbor who, accidentally or not, pollutes a stream, pond or aquifer that impacts your day-to-day life. Your access to safe drinking water, a clean place to swim, healthy fish to catch and maybe even the value of your home would likely be negatively impacted. Would you not expect the polluter to “make it right?” The notion of “if you make a mess, you have the responsibility to clean it up” is a Vermont value that has already been applied in several environmental arenas. Why then permit those responsible for the carbon pollution that damages our air, climate and health to walk away scot-free?
Our Legislature has a golden opportunity to do right, not just by the environment, but by the economy as well.
This is money that we are already spending in the form of environmental degradation. It is as if a dirty neighbor spills toxins on a shoreline and the neighborhood pays for cleanup in order to preserve property values. At what point should the polluter be held responsible for the damage? Some will argue that a tax on carbon pollution – in the form of a fee per ton, paid at the distribution level – will simply be passed on to consumers in the form of higher fuel prices. But what if the fees collected by the state, at the distributor level, are returned to Vermonters in a way that (a) encourages conservation, (b) makes adjustments for household income, and (c) pays for energy efficiency? Such a carbon pollution tax would benefit Vermont in several ways (source: based on material from Regional Economic Models, Inc.).
1. Funds, ranging upward from $35 million per year in 2018, would be put into tax cuts, green jobs, home weatherization, energy improvements, and would include special compensation for those most in need.
2. The money we are already spending on pollution-related damage would be recouped from those responsible – the out-of-state oil companies that take Vermont money and cart it out of state.
3. A new incentive for cleaner transportation would be created.
4. Cleaner sources of heat, drawing on Vermont’s relatively clean sources of electricity, could be promoted, with rebates for Vermonters and Vermont businesses most in need.
5. Much of the nearly $2 billion per year that Vermonters spend on fuel for heating and transportation – only to see it go out of state – would remain in state.
6. Future generations would recognize Vermont’s lead in creating a green economy. The Made in Vermont label would become even more valuable.
Our Legislature has a golden opportunity to do right, not just by the environment, but by the economy as well. Rebates structured to compensate low-income Vermonters and reward those who burn little or no fuel can be structured in a manner that is fair and forward thinking. A polluter-funded Energy Independence Fund that supports weatherization, efficiency, clean energy, and green jobs is an idea whose time has come. Let’s reaffirm the Vermont belief that those who make a mess should be held accountable for paying the cleaning bill. The time is now.