MONTPELIER — What the next step will be for advocates who support legislation to lower Vermont’s carbon footprint could depend on what is included in a report from the Montpelier-based Regulatory Assistance Project (RAP).
The report, which was commissioned by the Legislature’s Joint Fiscal Office (JFO) and paid for mostly through grant funds, could provide a road map for legislators who last year tried but failed to pass a tax on carbon-based fuels. The report should be completed by Feb. 27 at the latest, according to Frederick Weston, the principal and policy director for RAP.
“What we were asked to do was to give Vermont some options to consider concerning how Vermont can lower carbon emissions,” Weston said. The RAP report will not present recommendations to the state, he said, but rather present options lawmakers can consider.
Rep. Sarah Copeland-Hanzas, of Bradford, one of the lead sponsors last year for the carbon tax legislation, said she is looking forward to the report.
“We all agree we need to help Vermont get off fossil fuels. We know some of the solutions will require an investment in electrical vehicle charging infrastructure, and Vermonters with low incomes are the hardest hit by expensive, dirty and inefficient combustion transportation and heating. They are also the Vermonters least likely to rebound from catastrophic climate events like tropical storm Irene,” she said.
The RAP report is one of two reports commissioned by the JFO concerning carbon fuels. On Jan. 22, the JFO released “An Analysis of Decarbonization Methods in Vermont.” That report, which was approved by the legislature last year following a 2017 recommendation from Gov. Phil Scott’s Climate Action Commission, was written by Resources For the Future (RFF), a Washington, DC-based nonprofit.
The RFF report provides information on potential policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Vermont. It considers both carbon pricing policies, such as carbon taxes or cap-and-trade programs, and non-pricing policies, such as electric vehicle and energy-efficiency incentives, weatherization programs and investments in low-carbon agriculture.
The RFF report says that by “combining moderate carbon pricing and non-pricing policy approaches” Vermont could meet its U.S. Climate Alliance target.
Thomas Hughes, the coordinator for Energy Independent Vermont, a coalition of organizations that includes the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, Vermont Natural Resources Council, Sierra Club and other groups which support a carbon tax, said taxing carbon-based fuels makes sense because not only would the tax lower the state’s carbon emissions, but also it would be “low-hanging fruit” that would be relatively easy to implement and have immediate results. If done right, the tax would have minimal financial impact on most Vermonters, Hughes said.
Last year, Vermont legislators considered but did not pass legislation that would have imposed a $5 per tonne (metric unit of mass equal to 1,000 kilograms or about 2,204.6 pounds) tax on carbon content in fuels in 2020, rising by $5 per tonne each year from 2021 through 2026 until reaching $40 per tonne in 2027. Supporters of the tax called it the ESSEX Plan, which stood for “Economy Strengthening Strategic Energy eXchange.” The tax would have been paid by the fuel distributors.
Currently, no state has a carbon tax, although several, including Rhode Island and Massachusetts in New England, have considered taxing carbon fuels. Speaker of the House Mitzi Johnson and Senator Tim Ashe, president pro tempore of the Senate, have gone on record as opposed to passage of a carbon tax this year.
Matt Cota, the executive director of the Vermont Fuel Dealers Association, strongly opposes any tax on carbon fuels. He said the tax would be regressive, particularly in rural areas of Vermont where people are more dependent on gasoline to get to work and heating oil to stay warm, and would also send a signal to employers that Vermont is not a good place to do business.
“A carbon tax will signal to large employers not to move to Vermont or current employers to move out,” he said. “Due to the sales tax, pollution fee, and fuel tax, Vermont businesses already pay 7 percent more per gallon than our neighbors in New Hampshire, based on $3 per gallon heating oil. A carbon pricing policy that levies a $100 per metric ton tax would make the same fuel 50 percent more expensive. Raising the cost of energy purchased in our state will provide an economic advantage for businesses to operate outside of Vermont’s borders.”
Despite the lack of agreement between proponents and opponents of a carbon tax, Sen. Christopher Pearson of Burlington, one of the lead supporters for a carbon fuels tax, said he is confident the debate about greenhouse gas emissions will continue in Montpelier.
“Among legislative leadership, the governor and many Vermont communities, we need to do more work to take the concern Vermonters feel about global warming and translate that to supporting policy solutions,” he said. “As a state, we are quite unified about our concerns with global warming, but we are not as united in how to tackle the challenge. We won’t be able to shift our carbon pollution output with only tiny changes. I believe many of us in Montpelier want to continue pushing this discussion inside the State House and across the state.”
Pearson continued, “There are broad areas of policy solutions that will grow our economy, help families, and have a positive impact on Vermont’s carbon footprint. We need to help Vermonters transition to electric vehicles. This is supported by the governor and key legislative leaders. We need to put more investment into our weatherization program — it creates jobs, helps save families money while living in more comfortable homes and reduces energy use for home heating.”