This commentary is by Dan Jones. A Montpelier resident, a Managing Partner of Net Zero Vermont Ventures and former chair of the Montpelier Energy Advisory Committee.
I remember a time when oil costs were never considered. When I first got my driver’s license, I jumped at any chance to get behind the wheel. My mother would pull a bill out of her purse, hand it to me and ask me to go get a dollar’s worth of gas at the station. This was back in the 1960s well before the oil shock of 1973, when the price shot up to the unheard of level of 65 cents a gallon and rattled the entire economy. From then on, I like most folks, believed that our economic health was reflected by the price of oil at the pump.
Today, SUV sales are again going up in celebration of the price of gas dropping below $2.50 a gallon. Even at these “low” prices, I was surprised to learn, Vermont consumers are sending more than $2.5 billion out of state to the oil companies to pay for gasoline and heating fuel. “Not to worry claim the state economists. “Fuel sales only make up just 10 percent of our economy.”
Nothing to worry about? The more I have learned about energy issues, over the past few years, this doesn’t seem like the right way of thinking about things. It isn’t just what we pay for fuel but all the costs associated with our need for that fuel that are the real cost of our energy.
Just take the many hidden costs associated with the transportation associated components of our rural sprawl lifestyle. Any real energy budget must include these costs – over and above transportation fuels alone; and they turn out to be much greater than we might imagine.
Our state Agency of Transportation asserts that, on average, it costs an individual or a family $8,000 per year to keep a car on the road. I have yet to meet a Vermonter who will admit that they pay that much. This is frugal Vermont after all. But when one is honest about maintenance, insurance, and other hidden costs, the numbers really do add up. The median Vermont family pulls in an income of $48,000 and owns an average 2+ cars per household. At an average cost of $8,000 per vehicle per year, this means this family is allocating over a third of their income just keeping those cars on the road. Add in housing costs, heat and taxes, and its no wonder people are feeling stretched.
These are not the only hidden costs. We subsidize the hell out of cars. On top of those car costs, lets include, pollution costs of our driving. Believe it or not, Vermont is one of the top states in the country in our daily per capita use of gas. That’s because we are so spread out on the rural landscape. For example, if you look more honestly into our energy expenditures around cars, then consider what rural sprawl actually costs. Each of our wind-whipped rural houses needs a lot of fuel delivered just to keep us warm. Each home requires an average of 900 gallons of fuel a year, which is close to $2,500 for heat at this winter’s prices. There goes another billion+ a year, exported of state, to pay for our rural-lifestyle heating oil and propane gas.
Sure, heating oil and gas is a convenient way to heat, but its not climate- friendly. Global warming will result in more Irene-style storms, creating more wear and tear on our rural roads and electric systems. So keeping those homes warm is going to become more expensive as time goes on.
When we choose to spread our houses out across the beautiful hillsides, we need cars to commute to work or shopping in town. So, if you choose to live in the luxuriant countryside, somebody (Montpelier) is supporting you by paying the taxes which include costs for the safety and security, of state licensing, registration, policing along the highways, road maintenance, plowing, storm water, sewer control, and pretty much the whole local infrastructure designed for the benefit of the personal automobile. All this adds up to a very high price for rural living in Vermont.
Now, think about connection between to high property taxes in Montpelier to real energy costs. If this is not enough, we’re also subsidizing acres of prime real estate because over half of Montpelier’s quaint downtown – the prime real-estate in town – is committed to off-street parking. Privileged commuters from outside Montpelier regard this parking as a “public good.” But there’s nothing good about it. There is no tax benefit to Montpelier for the 60% of the prime real estate dedicated to surface parking. The state’s new water quality regulations are going to create even more demands to benefit this car-centric energy system, so we must add to future taxes for the cost of toxic run off from these acres of hardtop.
In fact, next to salaries, a large portion of our municipal budgets are committed solely to the serving the demands of the auto. If I were a car, I would say I had it made! The poorest human beings living on food stamps get nothing close to these kinds of subsidies.
You would think, in a situation like this, we would begin to get our priorities straight and seriously explore a more efficient way not just to use our tax dollars but to support a more sustainable lifestyle.
- We need to develop efficient shared transportation services like a Barre Montpelier light rail that can take the pressure off our commuting and parking needs
- We each could choose to save a bunch of money by really tightening our homes. Home energy-efficiency work is a theoretical “no brainer.
- Its time to install local and renewably powered heat sources like wood pellets or heat pumps that would be powered by local electric generation. Keeping our heat payments local, and using renewable fuels would easily be worth the effort.
My work with local efficiency challenges has taught me that most folks find the work too confusing and challenging. Not only that, but when sustainable and economical local wind and solar is proposed, the “Not in My Back Yard” brigades start marching on the state house. And those that argue that the renewable energy tax credits are unfair, might look a little closer at how much the oil and coal industry are subsidized (the U.S. permanent oil depletion allowances has been on the books since 1913, a subsidy that still continues today.
Neither Montpelier nor Vermont will be capable of responding to a rapidly changing energy future if we continue organizing ourselves around the automobile and its attendant suburban lifestyles. So rather than expecting the cheap fuel era to continue, let’s appreciate the real cost of this antiquated fossil-fuel dependent system to our collective economy. Let’s have a vigorous debate on embracing tax shifts, continued subsidies for renewable energy sources, and shared travel choices. The times they are a changin’, and now is our chance to get in front of them.
Montpelier resident Dan Jones is a Managing Partner of Net Zero Vermont Ventures and former chair of the Montpelier Energy Advisory Committee.