By Roger White

Vermont Gas Systems is currently seeking approval from the Public Utility Commission for a contract to purchase so-called renewable natural gas generated at the Seneca Meadows landfill in New York State. While any effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is laudable, the utility is pursuing a dead end here. Renewable natural gas sounds like a good thing for the climate—but it’s not the kind of clean, affordable energy we need in Vermont.

Renewable natural gas (RNG) is produced from biogas captured from sites like landfills, factory farms, and wastewater treatment plants. The gas is processed and injected into natural gas pipelines for transport. When the RNG methane is burned in home furnaces and boilers, it produces the same amounts of climate pollution as fracked gas.

There’s a silver-lining logic to RNG. The sites where it can be captured tend to be big polluters and greenhouse-gas emitters; so, at least some of that methane is going to good use. However, this argument probably won’t cut ice with the people forced to live and work near these sites.

Take Seneca Meadows, where Vermont Gas Systems is proposing its RNG project: it produces up to 100,000 gallons of PFAS-contaminated liquid waste per day. Residents, alarmed by the impact of New York States’ largest landfill on the air and water of the Finger Lakes district, have been anticipating its state-mandated closure in 2025; the landfill itself is seeking an extension.

There are yet more problems with the idea of RNG as a greenhouse gas reduction measure—as well as some surprising  fine-print details.

Producing renewable natural gas at a scale necessary to make a dent in our energy needs is both costly and unfeasible. If it is used to generate electricity locally, at or near the site of its capture, RNG can have a limited environmental benefit. But these gains disappear if the gas is transported via a pipeline system—which produces emissions when the RNG is compressed for transport, and which bears the risk of further (sometimes catastrophic) methane emissions from leaks, accidents, or even routine venting.

Producing renewable natural gas at a scale necessary to make a dent in our energy needs is both costly and unfeasible.

Unfortunately, this is precisely what VGS would do with the gas produced at Seneca Meadows: the methane would first be piped southwest, from the landfill near Seneca Falls, all the way around the eastern bank of Lake Erie, northeast past Detroit and Toronto, and finally up near Montreal, before it reached any customers in Vermont—a journey of more than 1000 miles of pipeline.

If this trek seems inconvenient or impractical, that’s because it is—and here we come to the fine print. According to VGS’s proposal, the actual methane captured at Seneca Falls wouldn’t need to reach Vermont in order to be sold as renewable natural gas. Vermont Gas customers could choose to purchase the “environmental attributes” of the Seneca Falls RNG (imagine something like certificates of authenticity for units of energy) without necessarily consuming the gas itself.

But: what about the gas itself? Initially, VGS would have the right to sell two-thirds of it out of state, at a premium. By the time the already-negligible remainder reached Vermont, the captured methane would be so thoroughly mixed with the fossil gas that makes up VGS’s overall supply that it seems an abuse of language to call it renewable energy at all.

This is awfully convenient for VGS, which can claim emissions reductions, bolster its image as an environmentally-friendly utility, and deliver fossil-fuel derived natural gas to Vermonters branded as renewable.

If the phrase “shell game” occurs to you here, you may be on to something. The system of certificates and credits that we use to calculate the environmental impact of our energy is so porous as to allow for precisely these kinds of greenwashing efforts. In fact, VGS’s proposal seems tailor-made to accommodate new legislation along the lines of last year’s failed Clean Heat Standard, which runs the risk of turning these kinds of loopholes into law.

This is awfully convenient for VGS, which can claim emissions reductions, bolster its image as an environmentally-friendly utility, and deliver fossil-fuel derived natural gas to Vermonters branded as renewable.

Unfortunately, dealing with climate change isn’t a game. We have to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere—not just on a spreadsheet. More than a viable source of energy, renewable natural gas is a way of justifying continued investment in an infrastructure with severe and inherent emissions problems. VGS’s proposal doesn’t sufficiently demonstrate the achievement of any net environmental gain. It doesn’t seem fair that the utility should be rewarded for its efforts in this case.

The Public Utility Commission should do the right thing and reject VGS’s Seneca Meadows proposal. Our legislature needs to take a fresh look at how environmental credits ought to be applied in order to genuinely help us achieve our state’s environmental mandates.

Roger White is a volunteer with 350VT who lives in Middlebury