This commentary is by Alison Despathy, of Danville. She has a clinical nutrition practice in St. Johnsbury.
Since 1999 Annette Smith, executive director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment has dedicated her life to the VCE mission of “advocating for the well being of all Vermonters, striving for the protection of the natural world, land, air, water, wildlife, people, and especially the web of life.”
S.5, the Affordable Heat Act, has raised red flags since the beginning, and a concerning development has recently surfaced after Vermonters for a Clean Environment submitted a public records request to the Public Utilities Commission and the Department of Public Service for all material related to the Clean Heat Standard Design Group — a select group that convened regularly and separately from the Vermont Climate Council.
Annette observed that there was never any robust discussion or analysis of the decision to develop and implement a Clean Heat Standard or another strategy within the Climate Council itself. After reviewing the recently received public records and meeting minutes, it turns out that all of these conversations were happening outside of the Vermont Climate Council in the Clean Heat Standard Design Group (aka the Clean Heat Working Group).
Annette is in a unique position; She is one of the few members of the public who has watched most all of the Climate Council Cross Sector Mitigation subcommittee meetings. With this knowledge and after reviewing the Clean Heat Standard Design Group meeting records, it is evident to her “that the public is not being told an honest story and the legislature is not being told the truth about how this came about.”
Regular attendees of the Clean Heat Standard Design Group meetings consisted of Jared Duval of Energy Action Network, Richard Cowart, David Farnsworth, Richard Westman of the Regulatory Assistance Project, Riley Allen from the Department of Public Service who is now at the Public Utility Commission, Chris Neme, Gabrielle Stebbins of the Energy Futures Group, Don Rendall, Tom Murray and Neale Lunderville of Vermont Gas Systems.
This is deeply concerning because the options on how to reach the Vermont Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA) requirements were not robustly presented, debated, analyzed or decided upon by the Vermont Climate Council. This was supposed to be their job because the Climate Council included representation from a diverse group including low income Vermonters, rural representatives, fuel dealers and the Agency of Natural Resources. Instead this decision was made by a self-selected, private group from the Burlington and Montpelier areas, some of whom also served on the Climate Council. This group decided on the Clean Heat Standard approach that led to the legislation, briefly introduced the concept to the Climate Council and then embedded it in the Climate Action Plan.
There is a lack of transparency in this situation. An allowance or other strategy could have been developed and rigorously discussed by the Climate Council in public. It never was. This is important for all to take into account when determining if this legislation is sound and is the best path for Vermont.
This new information has many now questioning the integrity of this process and the Clean Heat Standard legislation itself. The intended role of the Vermont Climate Council to develop a Climate Action Plan appears to have been usurped, bypassed and compromised.
One of the most concerning observations that Annette has witnessed is that the conversations happening within the Clean Heat Standard Design Group “were the kinds of things that you would have wanted to see the Climate Council doing, and that you would have expected.” She continues:
I think the legislators probably thought this happened — it never happened and that is the problem. We have this elite group … that has come up with a policy that proposes to totally disrupt an entire industry in the state of Vermont without the transparency that the legislators are being led to believe happened at the Climate Council. We are not having any of this honest discussion and I think that is the part of this that I find most disturbing. The legislature is being misled and we even heard our Attorney General Charity Clark state in her testimony, “We do support the Clean Heat Standard and urge you to pass it, the GWSA is law. It has instructed all of us to work together and the Climate Council did a phenomenal job in a short amount of time to provide a Climate Action Plan — the Clean Heat Standard was obviously in the forefront of the plan.”
Most legislators and the public believe this decision to use the Clean Heat Standard approach was made and deliberated upon by the Climate Council. This is not the case.
After a careful analysis of the recent public records from this Clean Heat Standard Design Group, Annette explained:
This whole thing is the result of a dishonest process. The reaction to that sort of thing is: STOP. Let’s have an honest discussion about how this came about. Who are the winners and losers? Is this good policy for Vermont at this time? I think that learning all that we have just learned — some of us thought that the PUC was going to be an independent reviewer. To find out they have been in the room from the very beginning, to find out the DPS including a current PUC commissioner was in the room from the very the beginning, it does not feel right to continue with something that was the product of such a hidden process.