Environmental budgeting

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November 18, 2008

12:01 AM

These days, it’s pretty easy being green. If the coal industry can tout its (potential) eco-friendliness, nearly anyone can. In the College of William and Mary’s case, the new Green Fee system appropriates some $230,000 — that is, $30 per student — in order to reduce the environmental impact of the campus.

Last spring, we came out against that plan, calling it an unnecessary tax. Instead of attempting to raise the money for improvements on their own, members of the College’s Student Environmental Action Coalition convinced the Board of Visitors to use other students’ money to fund their agenda. Even though we agreed that the College could be a greener place, we didn’t believe taxation was the proper way to make it so. Now, though, it appears that it is the only way, so we’re happy to see the deliberative approach the Committee on Sustainability has taken in distributing the funds — for the most part, anyway.

In particular, the budgeting process highlighted the wild success of one of SEAC’s other initiatives: campus recycling. Student enthusiasm for reuse sent the projected costs $16,000 beyond the amount budgeted by the College. In a heartening show of accountability, the committee has indicated the Green Fund will pick up the tab. The College plans to appropriate more money for the recycling program in the future, but the latest actions show that if nothing else, Green Fees provide some useful insurance for extant environmental efforts.

Of the $77,000 already budgeted, another $15,000 will head toward Swem Library for occupancy sensors to reduce energy consumption, and several thousand more will fund research into solar technology. Although the Green Fees were intended to, in part, pay for research, we question whether the money might be better spent on projects with more immediate and certain results. In promoting Green Fees, SEAC members indicated that the funds would take care of the low-hanging fruit, implying a focus on imminent, tangible results. Scientific study doesn’t produce those. It requires time. That isn’t to discount the value of research, but rather to point out that research grants exist elsewhere, free from the College’s budgetary constraints.

More problematically, SEAC President Philip Zapfel ’09 has said that $20,000 will go toward student research projects. When we wrote against Green Fees in the spring, we worried about the precedent enacting the fees might set for other student groups hopeful for money. If those funds now go to prop up SEAC members’ pet projects, it will severely undermine their group’s integrity. Students will have unwittingly handed them a $20,000 budget. The Sustainability Committee has yet to divide up the sum, but we hope that they will express every caution in doing so. Any money should come with stringent obligations for academic oversight. In the distribution and use of Green Fees, responsibility is paramount.

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