This year’s legislative session has proven to be mixed for environmentalists in Vermont, with some happy with progress toward climate goals and others stung by painful setbacks.
On the one hand, initiatives such as the weatherization of homes and incentives for electric vehicles have benefited from an unprecedented injection of nearly $200 million in federal pandemic assistance.
On the other hand, some of the highest priority climate bills have been blocked by Gov. Phil Scott, and Democrats’ efforts to override his veto have exploded in their faces.
“I feel pretty sad and defeated for young people and future generations,” said Johanna Miller, energy and climate program director for the Vermont Natural Resources Council. “What’s it going to take?”
The failure of Democratic lawmakers to override Scott’s veto of their highest-priority climate initiative – a bill to promote cleaner sources of heating – proved particularly disheartening as it came as a complete shock to many. .
Democratic leaders thought they had the 100 votes to override Scott’s veto, but realized how wrong they were on May 10 when Rep. Tom Bock (D-Chester) voted against the bill, H. 715.
Being caught off guard by one of their own MPs on such a priority issue stung House leaders, who saw it as a betrayal.
Rep. Mike McCarthy (D-St. Albans), the House Majority Whip, noted that Bock voted in favor of the bill twice and gave leaders no indication that he had changed his position. ‘notice.
“We hope the members will speak to us if they have any questions, and he broke that trust,” McCarthy said.
McCarthy said he doesn’t blame lawmakers for changing positions or voting their conscience in a way that conflicts with the party’s position.
“But that doesn’t absolve you of having some integrity and respect for your colleagues,” he said.
Bock came under significant pressure from colleagues and lobbyists to change his vote the next day, which legislative rules allow under narrow circumstances. He didn’t move. The three-term lawmaker and retired screen printing shop owner is not standing for re-election because he is moving to Colchester.
Bock said he changed his mind about the bill in the final days of the session after being inundated with emails and phone calls from voters raising questions about how it was drafted and its impact on low-income residents.
The bill would have required the Public Utilities Commission to establish a program requiring fuel dealers to reduce the amount of fossil fuel they sell over time or pay a fee commensurate with the carbon pollution produced by these fuels. Alternatively, they could offset these costs by selling more biofuels, installing electric heat pumps and weathering homes to reduce fossil fuel consumption.
The legislation tasked the Public Utilities Commission with ensuring the program helps low- and middle-income residents switch to cleaner fuels or reduce their fossil fuel consumption, but details of how it would work are unclear. were not expected until January 2024, following a series of public hearings.
Bock said he doesn’t trust the commission to properly design the program. He suggested that more legislative committees should have been involved in drafting the bill.
Bock said he was influenced by the fact that many of the voters he heard from were “individuals who belong to environmental groups or consider themselves environmentalists.”
This told him there was anything but consensus on the bill, and maybe Scott would be right to veto it. He did not realize his vote would turn out to be so important and cause “such a fuss”, he said.
“I didn’t know I was going to be the final straw,” he said.
State environmental organizations were divided on the bill, with some, like the VNRC, seeing it as a critical and thoughtful step to limit carbon emissions from heating oil, natural gas and kerosene.
Others, such as the Conservation Law Foundation, 350.org, the Sierra Club and Vermonters for a Clean Environment worried that the program would incentivize oil companies to switch to biofuels.
Shortly before a key Senate vote, Elena Mihaly, director of CLF Vermont, wrote a widely shared blog saying that the bill would “would miss the mark.” She argued it could give fuel dealers credit for switching to biofuels instead of creating incentives for people to switch to cleaner sources such as solar power, battery technology and electric heat pumps. .
She said Seven days opposition to the bill underscored the need for the legislature to redouble its efforts to build consensus within the environmental community on such consequential policies.
“It was a wake-up call to the dangers that can arise when you’re not able to ensure the environmental community has a single, unified voice,” Mihaly said.
She said she nevertheless supported the passage of the bill, although she acknowledged that criticism may have helped undermine it.
Defeating the bill was such a blow because it was seen as the best chance to cut emissions from the heating sector, which accounts for 34% of the state’s total emissions, second only to transportation.
The state has aggressive climate goals that require it to reduce emissions by 15% by 2025, 40% by 2030, and 80% by 2050. If approved, the program would not be not come into effect until 2025. It was recommendation #1 from the Vermont Climate Council, which worked for nearly a year on a climate action plan.
“It’s something that a lot of people put a lot of effort into, and to see it fall apart at the end was pretty devastating,” said Conor Kennedy, chief of staff to House Speaker Jill Krowinski ( D-Burlington).
The bill would have been a key step in forcing fossil fuel heating companies to reduce emissions while providing people with oil furnaces with low-carbon options, Miller said.
“People are looking for the perfect solution in a radically imperfect world,” she said.
Miller’s organization was also optimistic about the demise of an effort to strengthen forest protections under Law 250 and improve the way the land use and development law is administered. Brian Shupe, executive director of the VNRC, called the collapse of that bill a “terrible outcome”.
However, not all environmentalists were in mourning. Robb Kidd, conservation program manager for the Vermont chapter of the Sierra Club, said he was pleased with the investments in the transportation sector included in the state’s $8.3 billion budget. He called the incentive and infrastructure funding for electric vehicles “unprecedented” and said it was nearly $40 million.
“In the transport sector, we have made enormous progress,” he said.
He noted that $80 million earmarked for weatherization and an additional $45 million to help cities and towns insulate public buildings will reduce pollution from heating by increasing efficiency.
Kidd said he understands that some environmental groups are deeply disappointed by the failure of the clean heat standard, but he said the questions raised about biofuels were legitimate.
“In this case, all they had to do was change a person’s thought process,” he said.