Category Archives: Environment

The Narrow Parameters of Acceptable Debate

So how many political parties do we have in Vermont? Two? Three? Umpteen, if you count Liberty Union and whatever Cris Ericson and Emily Peyton have going on and the Mad Hatter of #vtpoli, H. Brooke Paige?

(I know, he’s a Republican. But any day I can mention Mr. Paige is a good day.)

Well, looking at recent policy debates in the Statehouse, you might just conclude that we have a grand total of one: The Moosh Party. Because on a whole range of issues, there’s little disagreement on the fundamentals; the discussion is confined to the details. At a time when Vermont faces some huge challenges, there’s a complete lack of bold thinking in the executive and legislative branches. We’re All In The Box.

The most basic area of consensus is on state finances. There’s no serious talk of raising taxes, cutting taxes or even significantly reforming our tax system. There’s no serious talk of raising or cutting spending. Streamlining or reforming government seems as unattainable as ever.

(When Phil Scott was running for governor in 2016, he talked a lot about “Lean management” as a way to make government more efficient and free up money to pay for new programs without raising taxes. He rarely, if ever, brings up that idea anymore. His state website touts his PIVOT program (Program to Improve Vermont Outcomes Together, and someone was paid taxpayer dollars to come up with that pukey acronym) but — deep into the third year of the Scott Era — doesn’t cite any cost savings. It does boast of 44 PIVOT projects underway and the training of hundreds of state managers and employees in Lean practices. Which makes me suspect that spending on PIVOT has outweighed any actual savings.)

When times are good and the state is enjoying unexpected revenue, the broad consensus is that we shouldn’t spend it — or at least not very much of it. The Republican governor and the four Democratic money committee chairs are in agreement on that. Except perhaps at the margins.

There’s also broad agreement that the state shouldn’t be borrowing any more money. Remember Sen. Michael Sirotkin’s ill-fated proposal to launch another $35 million housing bond this year? He’s a powerful committee chair, and his idea went nowhere. One of the loudest voices in opposition: Democratic Treasurer Beth Pearce, who’s fiercely protective of the state’s bond rating.

All this broad consensus leaves room only for piecemeal action. Take, for example, the legislature finding $6 million in this year’s budget to boost child-care subsidies. Nothing to sneeze at, but advocates will tell you that it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the actual need — for parents trying to keep their jobs and for child-care workers trying to make a living.

And it’s one-time money. That’s what passes for significant accomplishment in 2019.

Here’s another. Universal broadband is widely seen as a necessity for rural Vermont to become economically competitive. This year, the state enacted Act 79, which produces $1.2-1.4 million per year for broadband grants and creates a revolving loan fund for existing and startup internet service providers. A nice step, but nothing like a game-changer.

Meanwhile, the overwhelmingly Democratic legislature whiffed on three signature issues: paid family leave, minimum wage and a tax-and-regulate system for cannabis. What’s notable about those three, besides the whiffing, is that none of them would have cost the state much money. Paid leave? A new tax. Minimum wage? Employers would foot the bill. Cannabis? Would have brought new revenue to state coffers.

Not even on the table: Climate change, housing, education, the tattered mental health system, economic development, seriously addressing income inequality and health care reform, among others. No effort, through increased state aid or some sort of student debt forgiveness, to confront our affordability crisis in higher education. Nothing to address Vermont’s demographic crisis — except for the Scott administration’s dink-and-doink grant programs that only benefit a handful of employers and workers. On climate change, leaders of both parties acknowledge the crisis and our lack of progress toward established climate goals. But propose or approve a truly game-changing agenda? Not on your life.

Literally.

For years, politicians on all sides have talked about ending our reliance on out-of-state prisons. But actually doing something about it? Spending money on facilities or enacting new programs to reduce the inmate population? Nah.

Any effort to close the ridiculously large and still growing wealth gap, either through boosting benefits or job training or education affordability — or through increasing taxes on top earners? All talk, no action.

Health care reform would seem to be a critical need, considering that the Green Mountain Care Board just approved whopping insurance-rate premiums. But do you hear anything besides the gentle shuff-shuff of hand-wringing? Nope. I think elected officials of all stripes are still scarred by then-governor Peter Shumlin’s disastrous reform efforts. Nobody wants to call that monster out from under the bed.

The biggest exception to this depressing parade of cromulence was Act 76, which establishes a revenue source and administrative structure for waterways cleanup. Nice. But it only came after years of ducking the issue as long as humanly possible — even as toxic algae blooms make an annual joke of our alleged commitment to environmental purity, not to mention killing dogs and maybe causing Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

And action only came under threat of federal intervention. Yep, we can thank the Trump EPA for forcing Vermont to clean up its water.

This around-the-middle consensus isn’t only frustrating for those on the left. It’s got to be just as galling for conservatives, who believe the answer to Vermont’s problems lies in cutting taxes, spending and regulation. You’re not getting any of that from Team Scott, much less the legislature.

It’s funny. Vermont is widely seen as bluer-than-blue Bernie Country. But our current crop of elected leaders is comfortably at home in a narrow band of non-threatening incrementalism.

 

 

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Art Woolf, Random Access Almanac

I have been very mean to former UVM economist Art Woolf in the past. I’ve dubbed him Vermont’s Loudest Economist and Vermont’s Laziest Economist, and once referred to him as The Human Almanac for his ability to produce a rash of statistics in lieu of actual insight. I once summarized his output thusly: “Generally, Woolf’s columns present a distasteful combination of lazy analysis, careless oversimplification, conventional thinking, and free-market dogmatism.”

Sad to say, nothing has changed. Well, nothing except Woolf’s media outlet — formerly the Burlington Free Press, now VTDigger.org. I don’t know how much Digger is paying Woolf, but they’re not getting their money’s worth.

Woolf’s most recent essay, to use the term loosely, is a particularly half-hearted effort entitled “Understandably, electric-car conversion is highly charged.” Hardy har har, get it? “Charged”? “Electric cars”? Quite the kidder, that Art.

The entire piece is 15 paragraphs long. The first six are what my editors used to call “throat-clearing” — an overly discursive way of boosting the word count before actually getting to the point. Those paragraphs include a bunch of random facts about automobiles including their invention in 1879, their popularization by Donald Trump’s favorite anti-Semite Henry Ford, context-free statistics on the number of cars and trucks in Vermont and number of miles driven per year — and, as a bonus, the tone-deaf upper-middle-class observation that “today, just about anyone who wants a car can afford one.”

Gosh. Tell that to the folks who struggle to get to work every day or bite their nails to the nubbins whenever it’s annual inspection time. Or the organizers of Good News Garage.

Finally, in paragraph seven, Woolf begins to address his point: the state’s policy goal of shifting personal transportation to electric vehicles. Woolf is concerned about “a number of implications,” including the higher cost of EVs, the relative lack of charging stations and the time it takes to recharge an engine. All of which, it must be pointed out, are being addressed through market forces — a concept that a professional economist might be familiar with.

But those are mere warmups. Woolf’s real concern is the need for much greater supplies of electricity and how those kilowatt hours will be generated. He dismisses solar and wind as impractical to meet the demand — which is true enough, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be significant contributors. It also doesn’t mean that all the turbines and panels need to be sited inside Vermont.  Woolf then switches to Trump Mode, pointing out the need for backup power “on cloudy and windless days and windless nights.”

His only other idea for renewable power: Hydro-Quebec. No consideration of other potential sources, no mention of the ever-improving state of battery technology. No apparent awareness that EVs can be conveniently charged overnight, when power demands are much lower and can be easily met without massive new sources.

He then spends one paragraph on the problem of de-carbonizing our heating systems, again slamming the shortcomings of wind and solar. And that’s about it.

Here are two words you won’t find in the essay: “Climate change.” Woolf makes no effort whatsoever to address the massive costs of dealing with the carbonization of our atmosphere — which far outweigh the relative annoyances of transportation and heating electrification and boosting non-fossil-fuel power production.

You also won’t find any consideration of changing technology. Our energy system is apparently in stasis according to Woolf, with limited renewable options and power storage technology and unacceptably higher costs all around. Which is nonsense; technology is improving all the time and costs are coming down.

All in all, it’s a tiny unappealing bowl of intellectual gruel. Which is a shame, because Woolf occupies a place of some distinction in the realm of public thought. Is he really the best that Digger can do?

 

The case for wind

Most of Vermont’s media coverage of wind energy tells a David-and-Goliath story: the plucky locals and underdog activists going up against a corporate developer and the state regulatory system.

The pro-wind case usually gets short shrift. But even when it gets equal time, it’s almost always in response to anti-wind arguments. Rarely, if ever, is the positive case for wind given a fair hearing. As a result, there’s quite a bit of stuff about large-scale wind that most Vermonters don’t know. Here’s a list, with details to follow.

— For all our bluster about fossil fuels and gas pipelines, Vermont remains heavily dependent on fossil fuels, including fracked gas.

— Wind is a necessary component of a renewable system. There is no way we can reach our “90 percent by 2050” goal without large-scale wind.

— Wind has huge economic benefits, including tax payments to local and state governments and a healthier trade balance.

— Large-scale wind cannot be replaced by residential  turbines. It just doesn’t work. And replacing large-scale wind with more solar would dramatically increase solar’s footprint on our landscape.

— Thanks to recent advances, large-scale wind no longer has to be sited on the highest mountaintops. Lower ridges and hills are now suitable sites.

— Siting on developed land and rooftops is good, but it’s only a fraction of what we need. There aren’t nearly enough developed sites and roofs in Vermont.

And now for the details.

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VTDigger punts on third down

it looks as though Vermont’s best nonprofit news organization has stepped away from the hot-button issue of the Stiles Brook wind farm on the Windham/Grafton border.

From what I hear, VTDigger decided a couple weeks ago that it would stop covering the story. At least until after Tuesday’s advisory vote.

Which is too bad. I mean, from my point of view, better no coverage than the badly one-sided anti-wind stories Digger had been posting. But I’d much rather they examined their product and took steps to improve it. Dropping the subject like a hot potato looks like timidity, not a desirable quality in a journalistic enterprise.

Plus, in calling a halt to its coverage, its earlier slanted material stands as VTDigger’s official record.

On the news side, I understand that Digger editors declined to pursue a story about apparent bias in the Windham town clerk’s office. The clerk is a vocal opponent of Stiles Brook, and was accused of misusing her position to sway the town’s advisory vote on the project. The issue was covered by the Rutland Herald’s Susan Smallheer and Seven Days’ Terri Hallenbeck; the latter is a fuller account. Nothing from VTDigger.

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Here’s how you report a wind story

As one of my correspondents put it, “It’s a sad day when the Chester Telegraph is outperforming VTDigger.”

But it’s true. While Digger posted a slanted, incomplete story about the American Bird Conservancy weighing in on the Stiles Brook wind farm, the Chester Telegraph’s piece is a model of good journalism. It explored the story beyond the press release, it discovered nuances, identified relevant expertise, and fairly represented both sides of the story.

VTDigger’s Mike Faher, you may recall, uncritically reported on the American Bird Conservancy’s criticism of the Stiles Brook plan, giving weight to the wind farm’s potential impact on the threatened Bicknell’s Thrush. ABC’s Michael Hutchins was given loads of space to air his concerns — and only at the end of the article did Faher reveal that Hutchins didn’t actually know anything about Stiles Brook.

By contrast, the Telegraph’s Cynthia Prairie dug into the background of ABC’s involvement, and actually contacted a Vermont-based organization that’s been studying the Bicknell’s Thrush for a quarter century: the Vermont Center for Ecostudies.

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When the truth isn’t truthy enough

The Phil Scott and Sue Minter campaigns are in full froth over alleged negative advertising. Each accuses the other of willful distortion: Team Scott is upset over ads questioning his pro-choice credentials; the Scott campaign, meanwhile, is slammed for tying Minter to a proposed carbon tax.

Funny thing is, they’re both right on both counts. The attacks are based in fact, but are designed to mislead.

The pro-choice ads were produced by the Planned Parenthood Vermont Action Fund. They cite two pieces of evidence that call Scott’s abortion stance into question. The first: his past support for some restrictions on access to abortion. The second: the fact that Right to Life Vermont “recommended” Scott.

Both are accurate. But still misleading.

Second point first. RTL did not endorse Scott, but it did “recommend” him as, basically, the best of an inadequate lot. RTL doesn’t particularly like Scott, and they’d much prefer a harder-line candidate, but he was, in RTL’s view, the least bad option.

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VTDigger’s at it again

I was hoping maybe my recent post, “VTDigger is Biased Against Wind Energy,” would at least make the folks on the second floor stop and think.

I guess not. Because they’ve got another doozy today, entitled “Bird Advocates Concerned About Stiles Brook Proposal.”

The gist of the article is that an organization called the American Bird Conservancy has weighed in on the proposed Grafton/Windham wind farm with dire warnings about rising piles of bird and bat corpses.

“ABC questions whether the sacrifice of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of our shared ecologically important birds and bats justifies building any large, commercial wind energy facility in areas with seasonally high concentrations of birds and bats, like (Stiles Brook),” wrote Michael Hutchins, director of the conservancy’s “Bird Smart Wind Energy Campaign.”

Okay, hmm. “Hundreds of thousands, if not millions” from a single wind farm? Sounds awful.

Too bad it’s completely false.

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