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Don’t Be Fuelish

By Leigh Seddon

Those of us of a certain age will remember 1973, not so much for Richard Nixon and Watergate but for the OPEC oil embargo, imposed by Saudi Arabia in October in response to the U.S. arming Israel during the Yom Kippur War. The embargo sent fuel and gas prices soaring and derailed the global economy, causing the worst recession since the Great Depression. The American Ad Council came to the government’s aid with the ad campaign “Don’t be Fuelish.”

I remember that fall very clearly. The U.S. war in Vietnam had ended, I had an apartment in Burlington, and I felt secure working as a carpenter. The price of gasoline rose almost 50% in a few months, but as I waited in long lines at gas stations, my real anxiety was hoping that the pumps would not be shut off before I got my turn. No gas, no work. I wondered if the world would ever get back to normal. 

Remembering that era of price controls, rationing (no gas on Sunday in Vermont), and the mandatory 55 mph speed limit, brings home how long and difficult a journey it has been to get off fossil fuels — energy sources that we know are polluting, price volatile, and are the main cause of accelerating climate change. While the first oil “crisis” was 50 years ago, it was just the first of many fossil fuel shocks to come. Perhaps you’ll remember the 1979 Iranian crisis and Jimmy Carter’s fire-side chat from the White House advising us to “put on a sweater.” Decent advice, but really not very helpful for paying your heating bills.

Fast forward to 2023 and the Affordable Heat Act — Vermont’s pioneering legislation that for the first time squarely addresses the host of issues brought on by Vermont’s reliance on fossil fuels. The act, recently passed by the Vermont Senate, requires the state’s Public Utility Commission to craft a clean heat performance standard that will ratchet down pollution, increase access to weatherization and high-efficiency heating systems, and address affordability and equity issues. The PUC’s program is to be submitted to the legislature in 2025, and, if ratified, will take effect in 2026.

Last year, Gov. Phil Scott vetoed the legislature’s first attempt to pass a clean heat standard. He is indicating he will do the same this year despite the many revisions and improvements made in the Senate’s Affordable Heat Act bill, S.5. Every year of delay in enacting a clean heat standard means that Vermonters will pay more for heating their homes, our energy dollars will continue to flow out of state, and it will be harder to meet the state’s legal climate requirements.

The Affordable Heat Act is not and should not be a partisan issue. Our state’s economic security, energy affordability, and community resilience all require a transition away from fossil fuels. Governor Scott was still in high school when the first energy crisis hit in 1973, but as a contractor and business owner he now knows full well the economic pain that fossil fuel price shocks have imposed on Vermont every decade since then. We will always be at the end of the oil pipeline — now is the time not to be “fuelish” with Vermont’s future.

Leigh Seddon is an energy consultant and economist living in Montpelier.