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Vermont Mulls Regional Plan To Reduce Carbon Emissions From Cars And Trucks

The front of a Bellavance Trucking vehicle.
Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont is considering joining a multi-state compact that would require mandatory reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks, like the tractor trailers seen here at Bellavance Trucking, in Barre.

Officials in 12 states, including Vermont, have unveiled a proposal that would reduce carbon emissions from cars and trucks by reshaping the market for fossil fuels in the Northeast.

But while supporters of the Transportation and Climate Initiative say it offers a surefire way to cut greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector, critics say the plan will drive up the cost of gasoline and diesel.

The Transportation and Climate Initiative contemplates a regional compact between 12 states, plus Washington, D.C., in which signatories would commit to a hard cap on emissions coming from vehicle traffic.

Vermont Deputy Secretary of Natural Resources Peter Walke said the program offers a novel way to curb pollution from a transportation sector that now accounts for nearly half of all greenhouse gas emissions.

"Rather than relying on each individual to get the level of emissions reductions that we want, we get to find where those cost-effective solutions are by letting the market do that work," Walke said.

"In my opinion, banding together with the entire Northeast region all the way down to the mid-Atlantic protects us from a go-it-alone strategy." — Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe

Let the market do the work, Walke said, by creating a new kind of economy for carbon emissions. Under the Transportation and Climate Initiative, fuel sellers would have to buy a special allowance for the carbon produced by the gasoline or diesel they sell. 

"Essentially a piece of paper that says ... 'I can emit one ton of carbon emissions,'" Walke explained.

The number of allowances available would be capped, based on the emission-reduction targets the participating states have agreed to meet — and the more companies have to pay for those carbon-emission allowances, Walke said, the harder they're going to look for ways to burn less fuel.

"It helps drive those market signals towards … sort of changing ultimately to different transportation technology, different modes of transportation," Walke said.

More from Brave Little StateHow Can Vermonters Drive Less? [Dec. 6]

Those allowances, however, are also projected to make gasoline and diesel more expensive. According to computer-modeling projections in the new proposal, a 20% reduction in carbon emissions over the next 10 years would increase prices by 7 cents per gallon by 2032; a more aggressive emissions cut of 25% would send prices up by 29 cents per gallon by 2032.

But Roland Bellavance, owner of Bellavance Trucking in Barre, said even modest fluctuations in gas prices can have a sizeable impact on his operating costs. He said his fleet of 100 trucks burned about 1.3 million gallons of diesel last year.

"You know, if they’re talking 10 cents a gallon — for me, that's $133,000 a year if it's 10 cents," Bellavance said. "If it's 20 cents, well then there's more than a quarter of a million dollars a year in fuel costs."

Bellavance said he's pretty sure how he'd address the issue of rising fuel costs: "We would probably add another 2% to 3% onto every freight bill."

He also said other long-haul trucking businesses would likely take the same tack. That means, Bellavance said, that Vermont consumers won't just feel the price increase at the gas pump.

"You know, everybody's going to have to raise their prices — whether it be groceries, milk," Bellavance said. "And it's just another reason for everybody to move away. That’s what they don't get. I just, you can't make them understand that — that you're just making it that much more expensive.”

"Everybody's going to have to raise their prices, whether it be groceries, milk. And it's just another reason for everybody to move away." — Roland Bellavance, Bellavance Trucking

Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe said the ecological and economic threats posed by climate change require Vermont to do something to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks. By joining together with 11 other states in that effort, Ashe said Vermont protects itself from the competitive disadvantage Bellavance is afraid of.

"In my opinion, banding together with the entire Northeast region all the way down to the mid-Atlantic protects us from a go-it-alone strategy," Ashe said.

Also, Ashe said many Vermonters could see an improvement in their personal finances as a result of the program, since revenue raised by sales of the allowances would go back to consumers in the form of electric vehicle subsidies, for instance, or new public transit options.

"If someone gets into a more fuel-efficient vehicle with the support of the revenues, we could be lowering the household expenses and cost of living," Ashe said.

Vermont will have to decide next spring whether it wants to join the Transportation and Climate Initiative.

Gov. Phil Scott has said he'll be skeptical of signing on to any plan that increases the cost of gasoline in Vermont. However, Ashe said the Legislature could pass a law that requires Vermont to join the compact, even if Scott doesn't want to.

The Vermont Statehouse is often called the people’s house. I am your eyes and ears there. I keep a close eye on how legislation could affect your life; I also regularly speak to the people who write that legislation.
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