- Thom Glick
Should Burlington be allowed to impose carbon taxes on the owners of buildings heated with fossil fuels as a way to achieve the city's ambitious climate goals? Residents will weigh in this Town Meeting Day with a vote that could encourage communities around the state to pursue aggressive carbon-emission reduction strategies of their own.
The issue has been overshadowed this election season by Burlington's hard-fought mayoral race and several ballot items, including one that asks whether the city should ban no-cause evictions. Nevertheless, interest groups have ramped up efforts to influence the vote, which would empower the city to "regulate thermal energy systems" through fees on carbon emissions.
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Environmental organizations including the Vermont Public Interest Research Group and the Vermont chapter of the Sierra Club have joined Mayor Miro Weinberger and most city councilors in support of the measure.
"I see this as a really incredible opportunity for our city to be a leader on climate justice while strengthening our local economy," said Sebbi Wu, a VPIRG associate focused on climate and racial justice.
Business-oriented organizations, however, decry the prospect of fees or restrictions on new buildings that heat with fossil fuel. They say such a move would increase housing costs, require the use of less-efficient electric heat sources and run counter to the state's goal of encouraging city-centered development.
"Here we have the most dense, walkable community that still has room for infill and growth, and they're going to add another barrier?" said Austin Davis, government affairs manager for the Lake Champlain Chamber.
Opportunity Vermont, a new advocacy group backed by Republican operatives, has branded the ballot item a "burner ban" that could increase housing costs. The group made opposition to the measure its first public stand.
Jeff Bartley, former executive director of the Vermont Republican Party and the group's vice president, acknowledged there isn't an actual ban on the March 2 ballot. "If you're pricing somebody out of the market, that is essentially a ban, because it's doing it a different way," he argued.
The wildly divergent characterizations of the ballot item have supporters and critics alike concerned that voters will be baffled.
Weinberger said the issue isn't nearly as confusing as some opponents are trying to make it appear. "It comes down to a very simple concept," Weinberger told Seven Days on Monday. "Do you want the city actively working to try to address the climate emergency, or not?"
He said fuel oil dealers who don't even do much business in Burlington appear worried that if the city clamps down on emissions from new buildings, other communities will follow. "[T]hey're trying to nip it in the bud," Weinberger said.
Councilor Jack Hanson (P-East District) noted that the charter change alone would not put the new policy in place. Burlington's leaders are asking voters to grant them the authority to assess fees on carbon emissions. If voters endorsed the proposal, it would still require state legislative approval.
"It's just authorizing language," Hanson said. Should the city secure approval, then the mayor and city council would consider what type of carbon policies, if any, to enact, and voters would have to approve them.
A large majority on the city council has indicated support of more aggressive steps to wean the city's residential and commercial buildings off fossil fuels. Councilors voted 10-2 in December to place the charter change on the ballot. The city began mailing town meeting ballots to every voter this week.
Question No. 3 asks whether the charter should be changed "to permit the City Council to regulate thermal energy systems in residential or commercial buildings." It would do so by giving the council new powers, "including assessing carbon impact or alternative compliance payments, for the purpose of reducing greenhouse gas emissions throughout the city."
The council also placed an advisory question on the ballot, asking voters whether the city should take equity issues into consideration if and when it implemented new regulations on heating systems. Members were responding to concerns raised by Councilor Ali Dieng (I-Ward 7), who said he worried that future carbon taxes or fees would disproportionately hurt the residents who could least afford them.
Question No. 7 asks voters whether to "advise the City Council and Mayor's Administration, in its regulation of thermal energy systems in residential and commercial buildings, to create policies, programs and incentives focused on delivering the benefits of the transition to clean energy to low- and moderate-income Burlingtonians, to Black, Indigenous and people of color, and to otherwise disadvantaged community members?"
The vagueness of the two questions is troubling, said Matt Cota, executive director of the Vermont Fuel Dealers Association.
"It's very confusing to talk about what people are actually voting for on March 2, because ... they're going to read ballot item No. 3 and go, 'Huh?'" Cota said.
Cota supports Opportunity Vermont and has encouraged his members to back the organization financially. The group has a website, has conducted polling and has urged people to sign a petition against the measure. But it isn't engaging in direct political campaigning that would require it to reveal its donors, Bartley said. Weinberger said he worries that unidentified fossil fuel interests are paying for efforts to defeat the ballot item.
The City of Burlington has one of the most aggressive carbon-emission reduction goals in the nation. In 2016, it announced plans to become a "net zero energy" city powered exclusively by renewable power. In 2018, the Burlington Electric Department commissioned a study that concluded reaching that goal by 2030 would require a sweeping transformation of the city's energy use. Ninety-five percent of buildings are heated by natural gas, and nearly all vehicles in Burlington run on gasoline, the report found.
It recommended the city accelerate the transition to electric vehicles and energy- efficient buildings heated with electricity. It also called for expanding alternative transportation options and for capturing and reusing wasted heat from the city's wood-burning electric plant, a proposal that is in the works.
In 2019, Weinberger announced initiatives designed to move the city toward its climate goals. These include an array of financial incentives for weatherization and the installation of cold-climate heat pumps and water heaters; incentives to help people buy electric vehicles; and the installation of electric car charging stations around the city.
Then, in May 2020, the city council instructed several city departments to explore a ban on fossil fuel heating systems in new buildings. After public hearings and feedback from developers, in October Weinberger proposed a "building electrification and carbon price ordinance" aimed at reducing fossil fuel use in new buildings.
Before a city council committee got very far in studying Weinberger's proposal, the city attorney concluded that Burlington does not currently have the power to impose carbon taxes or fees. That led to the charter change question on the March ballot, the first step toward acquiring the needed authority.
Weinberger's proposed ordinance would encourage developers to heat their buildings with renewable alternatives by requiring them to pay a steep "building carbon fee" if they did not. Builders would pay an up-front charge of $100 per ton of carbon expected to be emitted during the first 10 years of a building's operation. According to city estimates, a fee for a new hotel might run $200,000; an office space, $20,000. The fee reflects the reality that some building designs may require limited fossil fuel use, Weinberger said.
Hanson, the East District councilor, said he believes the city should also use any new authority to regulate heating systems to transition existing buildings off fossil fuels. He can envision the city someday imposing a fee on homeowners who decline to replace their natural gas or oil-burning furnaces, even though they could afford to do so. The fee revenue could then fund incentives for people less able to afford such upgrades, Hanson said.
Critics of the ballot measure have other objections beyond its possible effect on housing costs. One is that it's self-serving for a city that owns its own electric utility to increase the demand for its product. Another is that much of the electricity produced by the Burlington Electric Department comes from an inherently inefficient power plant. The McNeil Generating Station burns wood chips by the trainload, making it the single largest emitter of carbon in Vermont.
And opponents argue that electric heating isn't all it's cracked up to be for colder climates. Modern heat pump technology cannot always handle Vermont's frigid winters and requires fossil fuel backup in many cases, Davis, the chamber lobbyist, noted.
Officials at Efficiency Vermont disagree. Heat pumps are like air conditioners running in reverse, absorbing the heat that exists even in cold air and transferring it into a building. While they do lose efficiency at lower temperatures, many units now operate to minus-13 degrees Fahrenheit and lower, said Jake Marin, HVAC program manager at Efficiency Vermont.
In many older homes, Efficiency Vermont still recommends that the existing fossil fuel heating system be reserved as a backup for the coldest days. But new, well-designed and well-insulated buildings can be heated using only heat pumps, Marin said.
This can be a difficult point to get across to people, because it was "drilled into our heads in the '70s, '80s and '90s that electricity was a terrible way to heat buildings," said Councilor Brian Pine (P-Ward 3).
That's true for old-school baseboard technology, but new heat pumps are "a truly transformative invention," he said.
If voters approve, Pine predicts, the city council would take a carrot-and-stick approach. It would likely use a stick on developers by requiring new buildings to forgo fossil fuels or pay a hefty fee; homeowners would be offered a carrot in the form of incentives to install alternative heating systems, he said.
"I will personally not support anything that punishes someone for the fact that they bought a house that has a heating system that is fossil fuel driven," Pine said. He added, "The first approach has to be to make it so that it's easy and financially advantageous for people to make the right decision."