As its name implies, the Vermont Public Interest Research Group (VPIRG) is founded on the principle that, beyond the competing interests that run our society and control our lives, there is a public interest that is all too often neglected.
We agree with the general proposition. Using weapons no more powerful than a knack for publicity and an ability to bring vocal citizens into the halls of government and, more rarely, onto the streets, VPIRG has brought the public to the table on a long series of important issues.
And then there’s wind power.
VPIRG is deeply involved in the energy debate, a leading advocate of wind power.
Late last month VPIRG announced that, in a “report card” on the efforts of northeastern states and provinces to combat global warming, Vermont’s grade has slipped from a C to a C-minus.
The reason, VPIRG Field Director Drew Hudson said in a press release, was clear:
Governor Jim Douglas has failed to keep his promises on energy, and “as a result Vermont lags behind our neighbors in permitting commercial wind power and developing a comprehensive climate change action plan.”
The report card itself is the product of 18 environmental organizations in the Northeast. The page on Vermont does, indeed, chide Mr. Douglas:
“The Governor should reconsider his opposition to wind power”¦,” it says.
Who says so?
According to the report, Vermont’s “grader” was the Vermont Public Interest Research and Education Fund. The phone number it lists is VPIRG’s number in Montpelier.
Two years ago, VPIRG said that 15 percent of Vermont’s electricity should be generated in-state by windmills.
Earlier last month in its “Vision for Vermont’s Energy Future” VPIRG increased that to 20 percent. (Currently, the report says, 1 percent of our power comes from “wind/other sustainable” sources.)
In a chapter called “Profile of a Vermont Windfarm” it gives a glowing account of UPC Vermont’s plans to erect 26 wind turbines in Sheffield and Sutton.
It notes that “voters in Sheffield, where 20 of the 26 turbines will be located, voted by a strong majority in favor of the project (120-93).”
It fails to note that Sutton residents voted six to one against the proposal at their Town Meeting in March.
So what’s wrong with this picture? If VPIRG believes that wind power is clearly in the public interest, why shouldn’t it become its vigorous advocate, and take the Governor to task for opposing it?
The problem lies on VPIRG’s board of directors. Two members, Matt Rubin and David Rapaport, are the principals in East Haven Windfarm, the company that wants to put four demonstration wind towers on East Mountain and, ultimately, erect 50 windmills on the ridge lines of Essex County.
Mr. Rubin, president of East Haven Windfarm, is former chairman of the VPIRG board. Mr. Rapaport, Windfarm’s vice president, is VPIRG’s former executive director.
Both stand to make money if the state approves their projects, and lose money – possibly a good deal of money – if it doesn’t.
So it’s not about the public interest, after all. VPIRG faces a good old-fashioned conflict of interest, just the sort of thing it was organized to protect us from.
Whether the conflict has seriously interfered with VPIRG’s policy decisions or is merely apparent, the damage has been done.
In positioning itself as the chief cheerleader for wind power in Vermont, VPIRG has tarnished its own reputation. It may even, in the long run, harm the cause of wind power.
It’s a tough debate, one of the most perplexing we’ve covered. A lot of people, if you will pardon the pun, are teetering on that ridge line between protecting the Vermont we love and enlisting in the very important battle against global warming.
Speaking only for ourselves, VPIRG’s self-righteous preaching on the subject cheeses us off, when we consider the probity of the source. It tends to tip us a little toward the other side.
VPIRG needs to do what it can to fix the problem, but it’s pretty late in the game. Rather than purge its board, maybe it should just withdraw from the wind power debate, and leave the field to those whose arguments won’t carry even a whiff of conflicted interests. – C.B.
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