Our Work

The ESSEX Plan: Pricing pollution to boost Vermont’s economy

(Originally published by John Walters, Seven Days)

An impressive group of business leaders, academics and policy experts has released a new proposal to lower Vermont’s greenhouse gas emissions. The ESSEX Plan was unveiled at a climate summit meeting last week in Burlington. (ESSEX is an almost-acronym for “an Economy Strengthening Strategic Energy eXchange.”)

And, yes, it does involve a carbon tax — or “carbon pricing,” as advocates prefer. But it purports to do so without economic harm. In fact, backers claim it would be a significant boost to the Vermont economy.

How it works, in brief: A tax on carbon emissions would be phased in over eight years, eventually reaching 35 cents a gallon. The proceeds would be directly applied to lowering the cost of electricity. Fuel prices would be higher, but electric power would be cheaper. And it would encourage a shift toward electricity, which would help Vermont meet its policy goals, because much of the state’s electricity comes from renewable sources. In effect, fossil fuels would subsidize the cost of electricity, leaving Vermont with the lowest power rates in the region.

Coauthors of the plan include University of Vermont professor Jon Erickson, former state environmental commissioner David MearsJen Kimmich of the Alchemist brewery, Mark Curran of Black River Produce and Karen Lafayette of the Vermont Low Income Advocacy Council. Thirteen carbon-fighting plans were introduced at the summit; attendees then voted for their favorites. The ESSEX Plan came in first.

So, hooray, right? A climate-change-fighting effort with broad buy-in that attempts to address the concerns of carbon-tax opponents like the governor because it provides immediate relief for ratepayers while promising economic growth opportunities galore. Can’t miss.

Can it?

“The ESSEX Plan is still a carbon tax, and Gov. Scott does not believe a carbon tax is the right approach,” wrote Kelley. “The current iteration of the plan … will add costs and leave many Vermonters behind.”

Well, the Republican administration doesn’t like Carbon Tax 2.0; what about the Democratic legislature? Are they ready to get on board?

Not really.

“It is our duty to look at climate change and do whatever we can,” says House Speaker Johnson. But she adds that a carbon tax would “affect different Vermonters differently. Rural Vermonters have to drive farther and generally live in older, less efficient housing. I’m very cautious about adversely affecting them.”

Sen. Chris Bray (D-Addison), chair of the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee, says the carbon-tax idea has been poisoned by years of Republican attacks. “We have a governor who literally ran on ‘Democrats want to tax your gas and heating oil,'” he says. “It wouldn’t surprise me if a proposal like this would be treated the same way.”

Indeed, the Vermont Republican Party is ever-ready to bash the Dems on the issue. Delegates to the GOP’s November 4 meeting were given a packet of information about party business — and a bumper sticker slamming the carbon tax. There is, in fact, no organized Democratic effort to promote the idea, and it sounds like the Dems are thoroughly spooked.

Last word goes to Johanna Miller, energy program director for the Vermont Natural Resources Council. She is the one and only full-time environmental advocate on the governor’s 21-member Vermont Climate Action Commission.

“There needs to be a meaningful conversation about carbon pricing,” she says. “If not this, then what? We need to move from talk to action.”

But as far as opponents to the ESSEX Plan are concerned, the mere idea of “talk” is apparently out of bounds.