Constituents critique Rep Briglin's clean heat bill

Deceptive accounting practices will increase Vermont's impact on climate change.

Thetford residents, in large numbers, have registered opposition to the Clean Heat Standard bill that emerged from the House Committee on Energy and Technology last week. The bill, known as H.715, was shepherded through the committee by Chair Tim Briglin (D-Thetford). Along the way, the bill raised concern among people from around the state who follow climate and energy policy closely. Before it was voted out of committee, Thetford residents drafted a letter to the committee that was signed by almost 400 Vermonters, including 140 from Briglin’s four-town district. Seventy Thetford residents signed, including members of Thetford’s Planning Commission, Conservation Commission, and the Joint Thetford Energy Committee, as well as Selectboard members Sharon Harkay, Li Shen, and Nick Clark.

The bill, based on a white paper drafted under the auspices of the Energy Action Network, proposes to establish the Clean Heat Standard to reduce Vermont’s greenhouse gas emissions from the thermal sector, that is, heating of buildings. The core of the standard would be “a system of tradable clean heat credits earned from the delivery of clean heat measures that reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

In plain language, the concept is to require heating fuel dealers to acquire credits by taking, or paying for, measures that would ostensibly reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. That could be done by mixing biofuel into the fossil fuel that they deliver or, in the case of Vermont Gas Systems, purchasing the “attributes” of renewable natural gas (RNG). Alternatively, it could be achieved by making energy efficiency improvements such as weatherizing a customer’s building or installing a more energy-efficient technology such as heat pumps or “advanced wood heating."

Critics of the bill voiced concern that neither electrifying the heating load with Vermont’s current energy sources nor switching from fossil fuels to biofuels would actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The February 14 letter to the Energy and Technology Committee said that, “While we support the use of heat pumps, these make sense only if the electric sector in Vermont is actually and honestly cleaned up.” The letter further elaborated on the signers’ concerns:

The Bill is explicitly modeled on the Renewable Energy Standard (“RES”), the embarrassing failure that allows for deceptive reporting of GHG emissions in Vermont’s electric sector. For example, the RES, implemented in 2017, has resulted in fraudulent accounting of emissions and a decline in installations of in-state renewable generation, such as solar. The State’s GHG emissions inventory showed a decline of 76% in emissions between 2016 and 2018, at a time when almost no additional non-emitting generation was added to the State’s electric portfolio. It was and remains a false conclusion based on deceptive accounting practices – practices that no other state allows. The Department of Public Service acknowledges that 74% of the claimed reductions was due to the purchase of environmental attributes from Hydro Quebec, separate from actual energy. GHG emissions from Hydro Quebec are falsely counted as zero by Vermont, which is the only state to treat large-scale hydro as “renewable.”

The bill that passed the committee on a 7-2 vote on February 24 did not address the letter signers’ concerns about deceptive accounting which was incentivized by the RES or the decline in solar installations since it was enacted.

About biofuels, the letter said this:

Clean heat credits for biofuels must be deleted from the Bill. While credits for “renewable natural gas” (“RNG”) could be acceptable if it were produced and burned within the State, as a practical matter the potential for in-state production is tiny compared to demand. We cannot support biofuel crops displacing in-state food crops, particularly when Vermont farms currently produce only a small fraction of the State’s food.

The letter elaborated in a more detailed discussion of biofuels:

Because food crops are the raw material for most biofuels, food cropland is being taken for fuel production, resulting in rising food prices and food shortages. Biomass and biofuels are extremely land-intensive energy sources, and taking food crop land for biofuel production has resulted in unprecedented deforestation and loss of critical carbon sinks, mostly outside of Vermont’s borders. By creating incentives to import biofuels, we would be adding to the burden of communities elsewhere in the world.

An earlier letter dated January 24 and signed by 22 of Rep. Briglin’s constituents included a fact sheet on biofuels. Among the concerns listed were these:

  • Changes in land use to grow biofuel crops, whether corn, soy, sugar cane, or palm oil, cause more CO2 emissions than the use of the biofuels is able to abate.
  • When the best agricultural fields are switched to growing biofuel crops, those food-producing fields need to be replaced. Often that is done by cutting forests. The forest that was removing CO2 from the atmosphere is replaced by a field that’s accumulating zero carbon year to year and producing a fuel which adds CO2 to the atmosphere.
  • Expansion of soy production, including for biofuels, is one of the drivers of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon where, since the late 1970s, an area greater than France has been cleared. Forests are the only known system that removes significant amounts of carbon from the atmosphere. Compared to all other energy sources, biomass and biofuels are by far the most land intensive energy sources.
McDonald RI, Fargione J, Kiesecker J, Miller WM, Powell J (2009) Energy Sprawl or Energy Efficiency: Climate Policy Impacts on Natural Habitat for the United States of America. PLoS ONE 4(8): e6802. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0006802

The February 14 letter was drafted and circulated by a group of Thetford and Strafford residents who collected more than 180 signatures. It was subsequently circulated around the state by 350VT, which collected another 200 signatures.

A separate letter on the Clean Heat Standard was sent to the Energy and Technology Committee by Rachel Smolker, a PhD biologist, codirector of the UK-based non-profit Biofuelwatch, and a resident of Hinesburg, VT. Dr. Smolker pointed out that the incentives for using biofuels for heat will most likely result in increased use of biodiesel blended into fossil heating oil. That is a problem, she says, because the vast majority of biodiesel is produced from vegetable oils, and Vermont won’t be able to produce nearly enough to meet the overall demand for heating fuel. That means the oil-based biofuels would need to be imported into Vermont.

Dr. Smolker points out that globally the demand for biofuels is resulting in more land being put into production of crops such as soy and palm, which has been “identified as the leading cause of deforestation, biodiversity loss, and human rights abuses globally.” Even when palm oil-based biofuels are explicitly excluded from a biofuel program, such as the one that would be established by the Clean Heat Standard, the diversion of other vegetable oils into biofuels drives increased palm oil production. Dr. Smolker noted a study commissioned by the European Union that concluded that biofuels made from palm oil are three to five times worse for the climate than the biofuels they offset.

The Energy and Technology Committee addressed these concerns by adding a requirement for a Technical Advisory Group to be appointed by the Public Utility Commission and charged with “establishing and revising the lifecycle carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) emissions accounting methodology” for biofuels.

When the legislature returns to session next Tuesday, the Clean Heat Standard bill will be taken up by the House Appropriations Committee (because the bill allocates $600,000 for increased administrative payroll, and other expenses “including marketing and public outreach.”) The bill must win approval from the full house by March 18 for it to advance to the Senate, where it will go to either the Natural Resources and Energy or the Finance Committee. Thetford’s Senator Mark MacDonald sits on both of those committees.

Editor's note: Stuart Blood, the author of this article, was a contributor to the letters to the Energy and Technology Committee.

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