As a student of environmental law and policy at Vermont Law School, I come from a background of running a small business with my husband’s family. This semester, as a legislative intern for the Vermont Natural Resources Council, I have had the pleasure (and sometimes frustration) of sitting through hours of committee testimony. This has been quite an education in the democratic process, as you might imagine.
A few weeks ago, I was in House Energy and Technology as they were taking testimony on H.51, proposed legislation that would prohibit the construction of new fossil-fuel infrastructure in Vermont. Bills like this are cropping up in states around the country. In addition to hoping to discourage any increase in fossil fuel consumption — and the greenhouse gas emissions that are causing climate change — these bills intend to protect utilities, rate payers and natural resources from the high cost of infrastructure that likely will be stranded assets in the emerging renewable-energy economy.
In the course of the afternoon, the committee heard from fossil fuel dealers in Vermont. These are the folks who deliver heating oil to our homes and businesses. They were concerned about not being about to expand into new territory if the bill prohibits the building of fuel storage tanks. Some of these businesses are pretty small: local operations with a few dozen employees at most. These businesses testified about the value their operations add to their communities: they provide well-paying jobs providing a useful service, they know their customers, and they contribute to local endeavors that support youth.
Their testimony touched me. My family runs a third-generation, small family business. I have no doubt these businesses are contributing to Vermont’s economy in positive ways. We do the same.
Our business is not in the fuel business but in the agricultural sector; we sell farm seed. Fifteen years ago, we observed other small conventional seed businesses were being snapped up by multi-national agri-chemical companies, such as Monsanto and Syngenta. At the same time, we recognized organic food was the fastest-growing market sector. We diversified our business; invested in building an organic warehouse and hired an organic agronomist. We partnered with researchers to develop new organic seed varieties. We expanded our product line to include not just organic seed, but cover crops, native seed, NRCS mixes and pasture mixes for grass-fed livestock. Our business has grown, we are stronger than before.
Based on this personal experience of our own evolving business, I don’t think it is the Legislature’s job to save industries from having to adapt to changing markets.
One of the fuel dealers testified about the efforts his company had taken to become a more diversified heating company. They have expanded into producing and delivering bio-fuel blends, installing cold-climate heat pumps, delivering wood pellets for heat, even doing some weatherization and efficiency assessments. This kind of forward thinking will secure them market share as we transition to more-renewable ways to heat our homes.
While legislators hear quite a bit from industries whose current business models require them to defend the status quo, it is abundantly clear that the development of a clean-energy economy will revitalize Vermont’s economy. By all accounts, investing in weatherization, electric-vehicle incentives and renewable-energy infrastructure will spur economic growth in the state. All of these efforts will create well-paying jobs in manufacturing, service or construction. Much more of the money spent on these programs will stay in our state, as compared to the money we pay to purchase fossil fuels, which are not produced in Vermont.
Vermont’s climate goals — our greenhouse-gas emission reduction targets — require action. The Legislature is taking testimony on bills that could limit fossil fuel infrastructure, make achieving our statutory climate goals mandatory, and increase investment in weatherization programs, electric-vehicle incentives, and other solutions. Such action will affect markets. I hope small businesses that currently provide necessary services, such as heating our homes and helping us get where we need to go — many of them pillars of their communities — can diversify to continue operating successfully in the new clean-energy economy Vermont is trying to build.
Sophie Ehrhardt lives in Montpelier.