Climate Change

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October 19, 2014

I would like to appeal to the environmental groups doing the heavy lifting on climate change to shift strategies – slightly. A slight shift in priorities can have profound impact. Allow me to make a case for increased emphasis on:

  • Instituting a carbon pollution tax
  • Stopping sprawl auto-dependent development
  • Shifting to mass-transit
  • Transforming our cities from auto-orientation to people-orientation (walking/biking)
  • Making all Vermont buildings energy efficient
  • Expediting the pace to renewable energy

from the present emphasis, which is on:

  • Tar-sands derived oil
  • Natural gas fracking
  • The different proposed new pipelines
  • Oil company divestment.

Tar Sands, Fracking and Pipelines

We were told back in the 1970s that right about now we would be going after tar sands, shale, fracked gas and other more difficult to extract and deliver fossil fuel reserves. None of these developments are new or are they a surprise. The more accessible reserves are running out. This day could have been avoided, but it wasn’t because we did so little to curb the consumption of fossil fuels. And now, sadly, most of the country, including Vermont, is rejoicing because these new sources and techniques are resulting in more domestic production at low prices.

Of course, we should stop fracking and tar sands extraction. The best, perhaps the only, way to stop is to stop or greatly reduce, the buying of the product.

Exactly how we extract and race oil and gas to the market to be gobbled-up as if there were no tomorrow, is a relatively minor part of the climate problem but is taking a major role in our climate justice work. One would think that oil companies extract the resource, refine it, transport it – without customers. All extraction/transport practices carry environmental and social impact, the old ones, existing and proposed ones. It’s all bad and it’s all because of the more than 10 million barrels (that’s 420 million gallons) of crude oil; 2.9 million tons of coal and 25 trillion cubic feet of natural gas SOLD to Americans EVERY DAY.

Does anyone really believe that if a ban were imposed on these different pipeline and extraction techniques it would not be reversed as fast as you can blink an eye – when the price climbs a bit and Canadian tar sands and shale oil and fracked gas and oil are competitive again? LET’S SLASH THE DEMAND for the product. This is the only way we are going to cease adding unacceptable levels of CO2 to the atmosphere and convince the world to leave some of these resources in the ground.

The world is not going to leave oil and gas in the ground because of the particular damage fracking and tar-sands extraction cause. Have oil spills, Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) explosions and leaks; oil and gas rail and road tanker explosions and leaks; coal mine explosions; acid rain and air pollution put the slightest dent in the consumption of these materials? No, because we have not dealt with consumption and the subsequent carbon emissions.

These old problems were dealt with by forcing industry to do what they do better – fewer emissions, better safety – never challenging the products themselves. Examples include emission controls on cars instead of switching to mass-transit and livable towns/cities; acid rain scrubbers on power plants instead of energy efficiency and renewable resources to REPLACE fossil fuel power plants. If we continue to focus on the extraction/transport techniques and not the consumption of fossil fuels, we run the risk of seeing these practices improved and not stopped, which does nothing to cut CO 2 emissions.

Our efforts to stop fracking and new pipelines may cause oil companies to mitigate the damage these practices cause (and that’s a good thing) but only drastically reducing the market for oil and gas will keep some of it, in the ground. Regarding new pipelines, since we have failed to cut consumption, this transport manner is clearly superior, safer than tankers and barges pulled by trucks, trains and ships.

If we are successful in cutting out tar sands and fracked oil and gas and the attendant pipelines, industry will simply shift to the other existing sources and means of delivery. As mentioned above, our success will easily be reversed. How long did it take before we reversed the off-shore oil drilling policy?

President George H. Bush executed a total off-shore oil drilling ban in 1990. A few gasoline price increases in the 00s prompted his son to reverse the order. President Obama made his own order allowing for offshore drilling in selected areas and then after the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, he executed a total ban.

If we had developed and furthered the energy policies of Presidents Ford and especially Carter, we might have been able to keep off-shore oil in the ground. Since we haven’t, there is little doubt, we will see the ban lifted again. All it will take are a few global price hikes and a little more depletion of other domestic reserves tipping our trade imbalance back toward the Mid-east.

Without the discovery of crude oil, we would never have developed the energy intensive, extravagant – live today as if there were no tomorrow – lifestyle that we have. Oil, and automobile companies, more than helped to make it all happen, of course. However, today we have multi-generations born into this lifestyle, many of them unaware that 75% of the world’s people do not have and never will have, cars or access to them, no clothes dryers, dishwashers, no air conditioning.

Americans no longer need to be convinced by corporations or anyone else that they want these things. Without contemplation, they believe they deserve them. They have become second nature. In the US we are now refrigerating most of our buildings while most of the world’s people don’t even refrigerate food. And the way it happens to work, the poorer people of the world will, already are, suffering the most from the effects of our gross over-consumption, climate change being just one of the ways. Future resource scarcity in an over-populated world will make climate change not the biggest problem for all but the wealthy and acutely for the poor.

If we increase our focus on consumption and are successful, we will actually reduce Vermont’s greenhouse gas emissions and provide the leadership so sorely needed in the rest of the country. Mass transit, in-town living investments and energy efficiency in buildings at least, are not terribly controversial. Their investments pay-back big-time however, it does take investment and is in competition with other public investments that governments continue to find more important such as highways.

Divestment

I was one of the three sponsors of Vermont State Government’s South Africa divestment legislation in 1985. Of course, the State and UVM should divest holdings in oil companies as well. A big difference however, is that regarding South Africa, we would divest any interest in any company doing business in that country until such time as the apartheid system was abolished. I sponsored similar successful legislation regarding Northern Ireland four years later. For oil divestment to be comparable, we need to divest in oil itself – oil consumption, not just oil company stock.

Let’s call on the State and UVM to divest in oil, not just the profits of oil companies. That would cut our emissions as well as make the right statement. A good place to start is UVM. Fourteen years ago the University invested $20 million in its oil heating system despite the recently completed feasibility study that concluded that the entire campus and Fletcher Allen could be heated with excess (very) hot water from the McNeil wood-fired power plant. That waste heat is still vented (wasted) today. A study just completed last year re-enforces the older one. The missing interest in pursuing this major carbon reduction project continues to be the University.

How about getting rid of the on-campus underutilized free fossil-fueled buses that make walking more difficult and the campus less pleasant? How about enforcing the City’s no idling law on campus (It would be nice if the City started to enforce it City-wide as well.) on the visiting team buses, their engines running throughout entire games!

We need help in the Legislature

With all of the talk about climate we hear from Vermont politicians, we did very little last year. In fact, we actually put less money into low-income weatherization than we did the prior year. We did pass a no engine idling law, expand, slightly, the net-metering program and update our pro-downtown anti-sprawl laws. But to get serious, we need Vermont environmental group-type advocacy to:

  • Change the goal of weatherizing 25% of the State’s housing stock to 100% and create a real program to make it happen
  • Pass a Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) for electric utilities
  • Shift resources to mass-transit and bicycle/pedestrian infrastructure from highways
  • Begin what will be a long, hard row: pass a carbon tax

With all due respect and recognition of the great work of the Vermont groups working on climate, I thank you for the opportunity to make this case.

Respectfully submitted,

Rep. Curt McCormack