This commentary is by Annette Smith, executive director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment. She lives in Danby.
Someone has to say it: Vermont’s Legislature has been taken over by a religious cult. No longer the representatives of all Vermonters, the Statehouse is populated by a climate claque whose only villain is carbon emissions. Nothing else matters to these true believers. They are driven by the fear that if the monster of fossil fuel emissions is not vanquished, the world will end.
This single-mindedness has been codified in the Global Warming Solutions Act, which has only one mandate: reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It created the Climate Council, whose majority is appointed by House and Senate leadership.
With no guidance to assure representation from all parts of Vermont, the result is an elite group of mostly well-off people from the ‘Burlington to Montpelier bubble’ along I-89, with a couple of outliers near I-91. Only two of the 23 Climate Councilors live in towns with a high energy burden (both are Administration appointees) while 21 live in towns with low energy burdens. Nobody on the Climate Council is from the Northeast Kingdom, southwestern Vermont, or any of the towns with the highest energy burden.
No worries, though, because the Climate Council is required to assure a “Just Transition” – social equity will be part of the solutions they recommend.
That’s not how the Council’s most prominent recommendation, the Clean Heat Standard, is playing out in the Senate Natural Resources and Energy committee, where the discussion has degenerated into an embarrassing display of callous disregard for Vermont’s low- and moderate-income populations.
The first sign that the cult had taken over the political arena came with the attack on Agency of Natural Resources Secretary Julie Moore and her effort to do the impossible: figure out what the Clean Heat Standard might cost. Impossible because S.5, the bill now renamed the Affordable Heat Act, has so many variables it defies rational analysis.
Sec. Moore’s honest attempt to provide the committee with an estimated cost was immediately reacted to by Jared Duval, the seemingly self-anointed King of the Climate Council who has been given hours of time before the committee while other witnesses are crammed into a few minutes. Duval called Sec. Moore’s analysis “inappropriately selective, improperly done and deeply misleading.”
Duval’s attack on Sec. Moore was unexpected. I logged countless hours monitoring Climate Council meetings, including the many subcommittees, and observed that the Administration appointees who are mandated to participate in the Climate Council are “all in” on meeting the requirements of the Global Warming Solutions Act.
Given that they work for a Republican governor, one might expect some foot dragging – but that is not what I’ve observed. One time, administration appointees objected to a specific action that undercut ongoing work being done by state agencies; a life cycle analysis that will take much of this year to complete. As they are in the minority, they were overruled by the House and Senate appointees.
But because politics, not science or accounting, is in control, Sec. Moore’s good faith effort to expose the very large up-front costs of S.5 was met with disparagement from the committee chair. King Jared’s modeling showing there would be a net savings does not address the fact that installing a $5000 heat pump with a 75% subsidy still requires the homeowner to come up with $1250, and that on-bill financing offered for weatherization will add to already-burdensome debt loads, especially for low-income Vermonters.
The kicker came when the author of the Clean Heat Standard, Richard Cowart, who serves on the Climate Council while simultaneously marketing the Clean Heat Standard to other states (his Regulatory Assistance Project got a $200,000 contract to sell it to Massachusetts) told the Senate committee that meeting Vermont’s emissions reduction mandate is incompatible with social equity. Never mind that the overriding principle that is supposed to guide the Climate Council’s work is a “Just Transition.”
Richard Cowart has had other big ideas for Vermont energy consumers. As Chair of the Public Service Board in the 1990s, Cowart actively advocated for deregulation of the utility sector in advance of the Public Service Board hearing testimony on the concept.
Fortunately, House Speaker Mike Obuchowski stopped Vermont from deregulating, but many states did restructure their electric utilities. The result: customers now pay more for electricity in those deregulated states.
Like electricity deregulation, the attempt to force wholesale fuel dealers to buy or create credits will raise costs for Vermonters. It is a bad idea that needs to die. Vermont has real problems as a result of the changing climate that we need to address. Solutions are best focused on reducing consumption, weatherization, resiliency, agricultural practices, protecting biodiversity, and an equitable process for locally distributed renewable energy that serves our communities.