Coinciding with the start of the United Nations climate change summit in Paris, the Vermont environmental coalition Energy Independent Vermont announced it will deliver more than 25,000 signatures from Vermonters to state lawmakers across the state, asking them to take action to address climate change.
Vermonters have felt the impact of stronger storms like Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, which Gov. Peter Shumlin, D-Vermont, and many others have chalked up to the effects of climate change.
However, one idea to reduce the problem is controversial in Vermont, because it could mean higher gas prices and home heating costs. Proposals in the earliest stages inside the statehouse in Montpelier would tax oil and gas companies on the carbon pollution their fuels produce.
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"We need to act now," said Nick Wahlers, a grassroots activist who gathered signatures which will be delivered to state lawmakers. "The longer that we wait, the longer we will continue to send hundreds of millions of dollars out of this state to fossil fuel companies that pollute our air for free."
Energy Independent Vermont said under its goals, any higher costs on fuel would be offset by the creation of a new fund to incentivize home weatherization, along with tax rebates and a reduction in sales taxes. The group said it is a prime goal to ensure low-income Vermonters are not adversely impacted.
"It's a fairy tale," said Matt Cota of the Vermont Fuel Dealers Association.
Cota predicted economic ruin if energy costs were to increase in Vermont, but not in neighboring states. He also said liquid fuels are critical for plowing the state's roads and to get Vermonters to work in a rural state where many drivers have long commutes.
"The fact of the matter is, we are going to need deliverable liquid fuels now and in the future," Cota told NECN. "Prius doesn't make a plow truck. Tesla doesn't make a tractor."
Paul Burns of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, or VPIRG, said it is important that any changes regarding taxes on carbon be implemented thoughtfully and effectively rather than quickly. He said the legislature may not necessarily take action in 2016, but environmentalists plan to continue to speak up for legislation they believe will have meaningful impacts on climate change.
"I don't think there's a person you would speak to who wouldn't favor a regional, or even better, a national approach to this, or even a worldwide approach," Burns told NECN. "But nobody expects this Congress that we have right now to put a price on carbon pollution or do anything meaningful to address the problem of climate change, and so it is up to the states to demonstrate some leadership here."
Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, R-Vermont, issued a written statement expressing opposition to idea of a carbon tax. That statement reads:
“Vermont is already setting a national example for green building practices, energy conservation, renewable energy and environmental stewardship. I believe we need to balance our environmental leadership with the economic priorities we have for Vermont. Since the carbon tax has been proposed, I've heard from many Vermonters who strongly oppose higher cost gasoline and home heating fuels, and understand how this proposal would increase the cost of living across the board. It is clear to me that the vast majority of Vermonters want the Legislature to spend its time looking for ways to grow the economy and save working Vermonters money. Discussion of a new tax that could add as much as 88-cents to a gallon of gasoline is not a way to grow the economy or save money - therefore I oppose this tax. To make Vermont more affordable for families and businesses we must focus on the fundamentals and get the state's fiscal house in order without new taxes."