Keep the Change: Shumlin Warms Up to Fossil Fuel Divestment | Fair Game | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Keep the Change: Shumlin Warms Up to Fossil Fuel Divestment


Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.

Throughout his political career, Gov. Peter Shumlin has argued that the little state of Vermont should take big steps to reduce its contribution to climate change.

But until last week, those steps did not include divesting the state's pension funds of investments in coal, oil and gas companies — a favored tactic of environmental activists. Like Treasurer Beth Pearce, Shumlin maintained that Vermont could exert more pressure on such companies as an institutional investor.

"I believe that by keeping a seat at the table and by encouraging smart investments, we can make progress towards a cleaner, greener economy while still meeting our obligations to pay for the retirement of [state and municipal employees] in the most responsible way for taxpayers," Shumlin told the Associated Press last November.

Vermont's best-known environmentalist, Middlebury College scholar-in-residence and founder Bill McKibben, didn't think much of that theory. In a May op-ed he wrote for the Burlington Free Press, McKibben called it "nonsense" and said Shumlin and Pearce were "trying to obfuscate" the issue.

The Vermont Democratic Party, he wrote, was "letting down not just Vermonters, but people across the planet."

Shumlin appears to have gotten the message.

In an interview last Wednesday on WDEV's "The Vermont Conversation," the governor told host David Goodman that he now thinks state divestment is "a good idea," though he cautioned that it wouldn't happen overnight.

"I actually think it's an intriguing idea," Shumlin said. "And, you know, I think that, over time, we'll find ways that we can be more active in that effort. I would like us to be. As you probably know, we have a fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayers to ensure that, you know, we're getting a good return on our investments. So it's going to take some time to make the transformation, but I think it's a good idea."

Oddly, the only one who seemed to notice the gov's change in tune was McKibben himself, who appeared earlier on the same radio show. While leading the People's Climate March in New York City last weekend, McKibben told Vermont Watchdog's Bruce Parker that Shumlin had become "the first governor to endorse the idea [of divestment] earlier this week."

Incidentally, both Shumlin and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) traveled to New York for the festivities.

"I think it's great," McKibben told Seven Days by email, referring to Shumlin's shift. "He's been talking about climate change in powerful ways since [Tropical Storm] Irene, and this (assuming he actually follows through, and soon) is an obvious and easy move (Vt. led the way in divestment from apartheid, after all)."

"And it's hardly revolutionary," McKibben added, noting that the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, whose $860 million comes from Standard Oil money, committed to divestment on Sunday. "If the heirs to the world's greatest oil fortune think it's unwise and immoral to invest in fossil fuel, what the hell excuse do any of the rest of us have?"

Whether Shumlin's commitment to divestment extends to his own fortune isn't as clear.

When he first ran for governor in 2010, Shumlin disclosed that more than $462,000 of his $10.7 million in assets was invested in seven major oil and gas companies. All seven are featured in Fossil Free Indexes' list of the 200 publicly traded companies with the largest reserves of coal, oil and gas. They include Pioneer Natural Resources ($161,896), Occidental Petroleum Corporation ($146,160) and Cabot Oil & Gas ($45,936).

On Friday, Shumlin became the first of this year's crop of gubernatorial candidates to release his latest tax return and a list of assets. Libertarian candidate Dan Feliciano released his return on Tuesday, but didn't provide a list of assets. Republican Scott Milne said he would wait until October 15.

Shumlin's documents show that, after his April 2013 divorce, he's now worth $10.4 million — $3.9 million of which is invested in 16 homes, rental properties and vacation destinations. Though the gov reported $5.5 million in stocks, retirement accounts and cash, he declined — as he did during his 2012 reelection campaign — to disclose the companies in which those funds are invested.

"The governor has provided his tax returns and a listing of assets, and that's what the campaign will be disclosing," campaign manager Scott Coriell explained somewhat circularly.

Asked why Shumlin was unwilling to release the same information he released in 2010, Coriell declined to respond, nor would he say whether the boss still invests in fossil fuels.

Either way, at least the guy acknowledges mankind's contribution to climate change. In an interview on VPR's "Vermont Edition" on Friday, Republican congressional nominee Mark Donka questioned whether humans are largely responsible for the phenomenon.

"Are we having some climate change? Most definitely, but I think it also cycles through, that the Earth does this," Donka told host Bob Kinzel. "What percentage is man-made? I don't know. I'm not a scientist. I'm not 100 percent convinced that it's all man-made. I think that some of it is, as I said, the cycling through. Man is probably contributing to it, but I don't think we're the total cause."

Ah, the old "cycling through." Hate it when the Earth does that.

Back on the Plane

Shumlin flew into serious turbulence in February 2013 when his administration requested a new state airplane without the approval of Sen. Dick Mazza (D-Grand Isle), chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee.

At the time, the gov hoped to sell the state's 1962 Cessna 182, which needed $83,000 in repairs, and replace it with a 2013 Beechcraft Baron. Factoring in operational costs, the $117,600-a-year lease-to-buy arrangement would have cost the state $1.6 million over the course of a decade, the Agency of Transportation estimated at the time.

Mazza opposed the deal, saying, "This is not a time to be asking for that kind of money when we're talking about a shortage in our total funding."

As Seven Days reported at the time, the governor himself had recently taken a shine to the plane. Between August and October 2012, he'd traveled in it five times. Once, after flying from Berlin's Knapp State Airport to Newport and then to Lyndonville on state business, the gov was dropped off in Middlebury for a campaign fundraiser in Lincoln.

After Seven Days inquired about the situation, Shumlin's campaign reimbursed the state $65.80 — what the AOT said that leg of the trip cost.

As for the new plane? That idea crash-landed.

But the governor, it seems, is back on board the old Cessna. After spending much of 2013 on the ground, the plane's engine and propeller were replaced at a cost of $68,000, according to the AOT's Chris Cole.

According to records provided by the administration, Shumlin has used the plane five times since October 2013 — mostly to travel to Bennington, Rutland or Springfield — at a cost to taxpayers of $1,269. One trip took him to Bedford, Mass., for a conference of New England governors on opiate abuse at nearby Brandeis University.

In addition to those trips, the state paid another $1,218 to charter planes for the gov on two days when the Cessna was not available, according to the records. On one of those days, he traveled to Bennington and Rutland for a meeting with high school students, a marketing conference and a press conference. On the other day, he flew to Rhode Island to speak at Brown University, which his daughter attended at the time.

The governor's office requested the plane seven more times last year for trips to Brattleboro, Bennington, Rutland and Arlington, but maintenance or bad weather put the kibosh on those trips.

Why does Shumlin feel the need to fly to Rutland, when his Vermont State Police detail could easily drive him there in an hour and a half — without even breaking the speed limit?

"The governor uses the state plane when it makes sense and is efficient to do so," spokeswoman Sue Allen says, "such as on days where he is going to multiple events in different areas of the state or the air travel time is short enough to allow him to attend a particular event along with other meetings scheduled back in Montpelier in the same day. The governor is able to visit more communities, attend more events and talk to more Vermonters in a given day when he flies."

As for the trip to Brown, Allen says it was "cheaper and more efficient to send the governor by plane," because it avoided hotel and terrestrial vehicle costs. She said Shumlin attended the event, a panel discussion with several governors, at the invitation of Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee.

For his part, Mazza says there's nothing wrong with Shumlin's recent use of the Cessna. He says he just doesn't want the state to invest in a new plane.

"If we have a state plane, which we do, and it's available, that's fine," he says. "As I understand it, as I've said in the past, it's not very expensive to operate."

Of course, there is one cheaper way to fly: free.

When Shumlin flew in July to participate in New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's second annual Adirondack Challenge whitewater rafting competition, neither the gov nor the state paid a dime. That's because, according to Allen, "The governor went to New York with a friend, Joe Giancola of Rutland, who is a pilot and was happy to fly him."

The way Giancola tells it, "He called. He said, 'Joe, can I get a flight to Glens Falls with you?' I said, 'Sure!'"

The Rutland businessman flew his four-seat Piper Dakota up to Montpelier, but was turned back at first by fog. On his second try, he was able to land and pick up the governor without incident.

"It was a wonderful day," says Giancola, who was particularly interested in meeting Cuomo to talk with him about New York's regional development enterprise zones.

He also wanted to bend Shumlin's ear.

"I talk business with him a lot," Giancola says. "I give him a lot of grief about business and taxes and stuff. And he listens."

According to the secretary of state's office, Giancola is associated with 12 Rutland businesses, specializing in real estate, construction, equipment and vehicle rental, laundries, conference centers, and even car and dog washes. The state has paid one business, Giancola Construction Corporation, more than $638,000 in the past four years, according to a Department of Finance & Management database.

Giancola has also given generously to Shumlin's political campaigns. Since August 2012, according to VTDigger's campaign-finance database and Seven Days' own analysis, he and three LLCs registered in his name have contributed a collective $2,500 to Shumlin's reelection committee.

According to Giancola, his state contracts never came up during their travels.

"We talked about the weather and the flying and the clouds and about jobs," he says.

They also talked about the state plane.

"I said, 'Well, after the election, I wanna sit down and talk to you about getting some kind of airplane service for our elected officials," the pilot recalls.

According to Giancola, who once flew the late senator Jim Jeffords and Bob Stafford, there's no reason politicians should be slumming it in coach.

"I think they shoulda bought the bigger airplane for him," he says about the Beechcraft Baron. "To spend two days to get someplace is tough when you've got things to do and legislation to do."

Giancola says he'd even be willing to fly a nosy political columnist around.

"I take my priest. I take anybody!" he says. "You wanna go? I'll take you!"

The original print version of this article was headlined "Keep the Change"