Commentary: Clean Heat Standard Greatens Carbon Emissions and Class Divide

The Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA) requires Vermont to reduce its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by specific amounts by 2025, 2030, and 2050. Failure to meet these mandatory targets would allow any person to sue the state, at taxpayers' expense, for non-compliance. The GWSA appointed a 23-member Vermont Climate Council to create an action plan.

Of the Council’s 200 recommendations, the Clean Heat Standard (CHS) bill has received the most attention. It has been passed by the Vermont House, will likely glide through the Senate, and soon reach the Governor's desk. If the CHS is enacted, Vermont will become the first state in the nation to regulate all fossil-based home heating fuels. An unelected 3-member Public Utilities Commission (PUC) – not the Legislature – will craft the details and administer the program. 

The CHS puts the “polluter pays” principle into practice by forcing companies that sell fossil-based heating fuels to 1) switch to bioenergy, namely, biofuels and wood burning systems; or 2) pay for weatherization projects and installing electric cold-climate heat pumps. Small and family-owned fuel dealers will have to slap the extra costs onto consumers. The aim is to make fossil fuels so expensive and inaccessible that Vermonters will be forced to heat their homes with substitutes. 

Biofuels and Wood are Not Carbon Neutral

Biofuels are made from plants and agricultural waste (e.g. corn ethanol and soybean biodiesel), and methane recaptured from organic waste, treated wastewater, livestock, and farms. Though these fuels are renewable, they are not carbon free. Biofuel combustion emits about the same amount of CO2 per unit of energy as petroleum; burning wood releases more carbon than coal or natural gas; and methane is a powerful greenhouse gas that warms the planet by 86 times as much as CO2. 

Proponents believe that biofuels are inherently carbon neutral, i.e. clean, because the CO2 released when they are burned is 100 percent equal to the CO2 that was removed from the atmosphere by the plants when they were alive. In a groundbreaking study, however, DeCicco et al. disproved the assumption of carbon neutrality by showing that the CO2 uptake by plants offsets merely 37 percent of the CO2 emitted when they are burned as biofuel (Climatic Change, August 2016). 

Vermont policymakers are therefore wrong to exclude the carbon emitted during biofuel and wood combustion. Due to this omission, the bill underestimates the GHG emission impact of replacing fossil fuels with bioenergy. It is not their only mistake. 

Counting Emissions From Land Use Conversion 

The CHS bill states that the PUC will hire third-party consultants to determine the total carbon emitted by various biofuels. This lifecycle analysis (LCA) will calculate the GHG emissions related to producing, transporting, and consuming the fuel. It will not, however, count the high emissions caused by converting agricultural land to grow crops like corn and soybean for biofuel production. 

Previous LCA studies on biofuels, which informed the federal Renewable Fuel Standard (2005) and California's Low-Carbon Fuel Standard (2009), underestimated the emissions impact of land use conversion. On account of new modeling that corrects these critical accounting errors, we now know that biofuels release greater GHG emissions than fossil fuels. 

When rainforests and grasslands are cleared to grow biofuel crops, the carbon stored in the soil and plants is released as CO2. Fargione et. al showed that altering natural ecosystems into cropland releases 17 to 420 times more CO2 than the annual GHG reductions that these biofuels would provide by replacing fossil fuels (Science, Feb. 2008). A more recent study found that corn ethanol (the most common biofuel) emits at least 24 percent more carbon than gasoline (PNAS, Feb. 2022).

John DeCicco (University of Michigan Energy Institute) stated bluntly in an interview, “When it comes to the emissions that cause global warming, biofuels are worse than gasoline. The underpinnings of policies used to promote biofuels for reasons of climate have now been proven to be scientifically incorrect […] Hard data, straight from America’s croplands, now confirm the worst fears about the harm that biofuels do to the planet.” Disregarding the evidence, Vermont lawmakers purport that the CHS will achieve the carbon reduction targets by forcing Vermonters to burn carbon intensive fuels. Do they want the CHS to increase the state's net carbon emissions and run afoul of the GWSA?

Curbing Consumption

The question that the Vermont Climate Council and legislators are attempting to answer, using schemes like the CHS, is not, “How do we heat homes and power cars without fossil fuels?” Rather it is, “How do we get most Vermonters to live in smaller homes and drive fewer cars?” Curbing society-wide consumption is the only way to curb carbon emissions. But it will not occur voluntarily and cannot be imposed without an imminent threat, as proven by the COVID-19 lockdowns.

The authorities thus settle on penalizing the middle class – a chronically abused demographic that is teetering on extinction in Vermont. Climate Council member Jared Duval demonstrated this punitive impulse when he admitted that the CHS will hurt businesses that sell “as much fossil fuel as you want.” How will bio-alternatives reduce consumption? By shuttering local companies and forcing middle-income workers and families to downsize or leave the state. Ultimately, the Clean Heat Standard will raise carbon emissions and deepen Vermont’s shameful chasm between the wealthy and welfare dependent.


Meg Hansen is president of the Ethan Allen Institute, a policy research and educational nonprofit organization in Vermont.


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