• Don’t fiddle with divestment
    November 27,2013

    I read in The Times Argus on Nov. 25 that state Sen. Anthony Pollina expressed the desire to “strike a blow against climate change” through a bill that would force the state to divest its holdings in companies that produce and service the oil and coal industries. State Treasurer Beth Pearce, the state’s chief investment officer, suggests, on the other hand, that Vermont’s state funds not be divested of companies that have as their principal business the production or manufacture of fossil fuels.

    Treasurer Pearce’s position reflects two objectives. The first is to do what is best financially for Vermont public employees and for the state — fair enough and understandable for the state’s banker and chief investment officer. The second indicates the desire to acknowledge social responsibility wherein the treasurer takes the position that by the state maintaining its investments in oil and coal it can “keep its seat at the table and push for change from within (the fossil fuel industry).” A reasonable person could easily defend the treasurer’s position, based on the constituencies she serves.

    Pollina’s position is also defensible and reflects the emerging consensus regarding the exploitation of fossil fuels and their implication in man-made climate change. The consensus is science-based. The senator’s priority is squarely the environment, carbon and other pollution and climate change.

    Private and public institutions have divested. The Yale student body is the most recent group that I am aware of to put the question of divestiture to a vote. Divestiture is guided by social responsibility and is based on scientific evidence that global temperatures are rising faster now than they have at any period in the last 800,000 years. The scale here is the Industrial Revolution. One key finding of the International Panel on Climate Change is that the greatest influence on rising temperatures is, and has been for the last 150 years, human activity.

    With all the concern and talk in Vermont about greenhouse gas and climate change and how Vermont, by its very own branding, should be a leader in energy policy and curbing greenhouse gas, one has to wonder why in the world we are considering building another whole-tree, green wood-chip biomass power plant. The North Springfield biomass proposal that is now being considered by the Vermont Public Service Board will produce, by the developer’s own data, 447,000 tons of greenhouse gas a year. The burning of green wood chips from whole trees will produce electricity at paltry 26 percent efficiency while it also produces harmful carbon emissions, toxic particulate matter and ash. Other air pollution will come from harvesting, transport and processing of whole trees.

    Documents indicate that the proposed plant will burn 450,000 tons of green wood a year, 300,000 tons of which will come from Vermont.

    Together with McNeil in Burlington and Ryegate, the wood used by the three plants would be consumed at an unsustainable rate according to the Agency of Natural Resources. The emissions from the proposed North Springfield biomass plant would produce as much pollution as a coal-fired plant.

    Building a biomass plant renders the act of divestment and opposition to the oil and coal industry moot. Do we really think we have a chance in Vermont to reduce greenhouse gas by divesting public funds in fossil fuel companies while we build a wood-burning electric plant? Divestment is a topic worthy of debate, but irrespective of divestment, whether one is against it or one is for it, surely everyone, including Sen. Pollina and Treasurer Pearce, can agree that another whole-tree, wood-burning, carbon-polluting power plant should not be part of Vermont’s energy future.

    Are we really serious about curbing greenhouse gas and slowing the rate of climate change? If so, then why are we even talking about burning wood, Vermont’s second most important asset, to make electricity, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture excludes biomass from its list of renewable energy sources (as noted by the Agency of Natural Resources on its website).

    Call and write to encourage our politicians and decision-makers and our power companies to make good decisions. At the very least we should insist on informed energy policy that is consistent from one body of government to another. Should we be “fiddling” around with divestment while Vermont forests are burned?

    Randall Susman lives in North Springfield.

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