Carbon Accounting Errors Skew Burlington, Vermont’s Climate Plan

The City of Burlington, Vermont’s Draft Climate Action Plan reports only a fraction of the carbon dioxide (CO2) smokestack emissions from the McNeil Generating Station [pictured below]—a 50 megawatt biomass incinerator supplying roughly one-third of the city’s electricity—hindering the city’s efforts to accurately measure and reduce its carbon footprint. 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) calculates McNeil’s CO2 emissions alone at 444,646 tons per year yet the Burlington Plan reports the entire City of Burlington’s emissions for 2007, from all sources, at 397,272.4 tons. Critics contend that the inaccurate carbon accounting invalidates the Plan’s targets for “20% reduction of 2007 [CO2] levels by 2020” and “80% reductions by 2050”—arguably the main purpose of the plan. 


Several citizens, including civil engineer and founder of Massachusetts Forest Watch, Chris Matera, contacted the City about the error. Jon Adams-Kollitz, Interim Coordinator for the City of Burlington’s Sustainability Action Team, part of the Community Economic Development Office (CEDO), responded that the City “accounted GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions for McNeil with a coefficient of 0.032 kgCO2/kWh [kilograms of CO2 per kilowatt hour].”

“Using Mr. Adams-Kollitz's factor of 0.032 kgCO2/kWh yields only 10,868 tons of CO2” instead of the 444,646 tons calculated by the EPA, countered Matera by email, showing his calculations. “If the intention was to ‘credit’ only 2% of McNeil emissions to Burlington, this would explain the difference…If so, where do the remaining 98% of McNeil CO2 emissions get counted?”

“We appreciate your perspective, and we will have to agree to disagree on this issue,” Kollitz responded. “Our McNeil engineers, and our consultants for the Climate Action Plan Update, feel solid in the science and methods utilized in our 2007 and 2010 inventories.”’

The McNeil Generating Station, which began operations in 1984, burns approximately 400,000 green tons of wood per year—30 cords every hour—of whole trees [pictured below], tree tops and limbs, “residues such as sawdust, chips and bark from local sawmills,” and “urban wood waste.” The McNeil facility sources wood from forests in New York State and Vermont from logging operations ranging from sugar bush “thinnings,” to 25 acre clearcuts, to clearing lots for housing developments.


As of 1989, McNeil also burns a varying percentage of natural gas, some of which can be traced to hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” in Canada. Other than carbon dioxide, the aging incinerator emits dozens of toxic pollutants, including asthma-causing particulate matter and carcinogenic volatile organic compounds (VOCs), at higher levels than many coal plants. McNeil is sited a few hundred yards from the nearest residences in Burlington’s Old North End neighborhood, which has the highest percentage of ethnic diversity in all of Vermont. PlanetHazard.com lists McNeil as the worst polluter in the state. 

William S. Keeton, Professor of Forest Ecology and Forestry Chair at the University of Vermont’s Rubenstein School contacted the City on the McNeil carbon accounting controversy by email, explaining that “on one point there is a growing consensus within the peer-reviewed scientific literature. Namely, that we cannot assume biomass energy to be emissions neutral, but rather there are differences in short vs. long-term net emissions.”

“These are dependent on a number of variables, such as type, frequency, and intensity of harvesting as well as the specific energy substitutions,” Keeton wrote, attaching five studies from Global Change Biology to support his points. “Understanding these differences will require complex accounting methodologies and projections of future harvesting and energy use scenarios.”

Keeton recommends that Burlington “recognize that wood bioenergy has both pros (e.g. local, renewable energy source) and cons (e.g. high likelihood of net positive emissions during the near term so critical for avoiding irreversible high magnitude climate change).”

350 Vermont, the state chapter of the national climate change advocacy group founded by Bill McKibben, also contacted the City with its concerns regarding the McNeil issue. Burlington resident David Stember sent an email on behalf of “Team 350 Vermont” to Kollitz and City of Burlington Comprehensive Planner Sandrine Thibault, which included a blog post urging the City to “further develop its greenhouse gas accounting practices.”

“In addition to (not instead of) the emissions estimates determined using the current greenhouse gas accounting practice for climate planning,” reads the blog post, “we’d like for the City to estimate the lifecycle emissions (a.k.a. as cradle-to-grave emissions) for each energy source.”

“The net greenhouse gas effects of bioenergy…depend critically on non-combustion related factors, including the source of the biomass and the relevant land-use effects,” according to the post. Acknowledging the difficulty of precise accounting for this complicated issue, 350 Vermont recommended that the City “take immediate steps to make carbon accounting more transparent by including an estimated range of lifecycle emissions for each relevant energy source.”

The climate organization’s post also refers to “fugitive emissions” from burning natural gas at the facility, explaining that McNeil’s carbon footprint “may not just be a few percent larger, but several-fold larger, than conventional estimates indicate.”

Specifically, the group urges Burlington to “lead other cities” by explaining their current carbon accounting for the Climate Action Plan, including the “actual carbon dioxide smokestack emissions from the McNeil Station, as calculated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency,” and by providing estimated ranges of emissions.

McNeil Generating Station is jointly owned by Burlington Electric Department, Green Mountain Power (recently acquired by Gaz Metro of Canada), and Vermont Public Power Supply Authority