By John McClaughry
The pending Global Warming Solutions Act (H.688) has become the must-pass Holy Grail of Vermont’s climate activists.
During his six year tenure (2011-2016), Gov. Peter Shumlin enthusiastically signed numerous bills, mostly aimed at forcing electric utilities to rely more on renewable electricity, less on fossil fueled grid power, and none from Vermont’s nuclear plant.
Beginning in Shumlin’s last term the climate lobby focused on getting the Legislature to impose a hefty carbon tax on heating oil, natural gas, gasoline, diesel fuel and propane. Two carbon tax bills were introduced in that biennium, five more in the next, and three more in the current one. All were sponsored by Democrats. Despite two-to-one Democratic majorities in both House and Senate, none of these bills even came to a vote.
In 2018, getting nowhere with that year’s carbon tax plan, the climate lobby switched its focus to “reducing CO2 emissions” and got the Legislature to spend $120,000 on a consultant’s study of the prospects for “decarbonization.” The report appeared in February 2019. Its findings were based on the doubtful assumption that Vermonters would agree to let largely imaginary “climate benefits” projected to accrue elsewhere on the planet compensate for their diminished economic welfare here.
Nonetheless, the report found that there was no amount of carbon tax burden that would drive people out of using fossil fuels, at least unless many “non-pricing policy approaches” (i.e., regulation, mandates, prohibitions and subsidies) were added on top of the tax.
Enter the new Holy Grail — the Global Warming Solutions Act (H.688). Now the focus is on curtailing emissions. As passed by House and Senate, the GWSA makes mandatory an enormous reduction in CO2 emissions from businesses, transportation and home heating sufficient to reduce Vermont’s present 9 MMTCO2 annual emissions by 80% in 2050.
Bypassing the governor, the bill would create a Climate Council to instruct the Governor’s cabinet officers on how to achieve this enormous reduction. The climate lobby has decided that although Gov. Scott talks a respectable game about the menace of climate change, in practice he won’t place significant new burdens on the state’s enfeebled economy, especially in the middle of a pandemic.
Under GWSA, if the state agencies fall behind in adopting rules to drive down emissions, “any person” can bring a lawsuit to force them to go further. If the plaintiff “substantially prevails,” the taxpayers get the bill for its legal costs.
From the standpoint of its legislative sponsors, here’s the beauty of the GWSA: No matter how costly, no matter how burdensome, no matter or invasive these rules will need to be to drive emissions down by 80% over 30 years, no legislator will ever have to vote on them! So much for our constitutional requirement that “all officers of the government, whether legislative or executive, are the people’s trustees and servants and at all times, in a legal way, accountable to them.”
Three times, most recently in mid-August, Gov. Scott has tried to meet the Legislature partway on the bill’s provisions. He asked that the climate council report to the governor, that the “any person” lawsuit be scrapped, and that the legislators make themselves accountable for approving the many regulatory schemes the climate council will think up. The Democratic leadership rejected all of those proposals.
This week the House will accept the minor Senate amendments and vote to send the bill to the governor. He can sign it, let it become law without his signature, or veto it. The House will put $586,000 into the General Fund appropriations bill to get GWSA started, then add another $386,000 later.
Gov. Scott has powerful grounds for a veto. Whether two-thirds of House and Senate would vote to override his well-founded veto eight weeks before election day is a touchy political question. It will be seriously touchy if the governor forcefully vetoes this far-reaching but wrong-headed bill, the grave defects of which he has already pointed out, and which was passed by Democratic majorities in the midst of an economy-crippling pandemic and a $170 million General Fund deficit.
This final legislative action will put on record, six weeks before the election, the legislators who think they can hide in the shadows while an unaccountable bureaucracy, given broad instructions to achieve a probably impossible goal and goaded on by taxpayer-financed lawsuits, regulates and mandates 80% of Vermont’s CO2 emissions out of existence. Or so they think.
Meanwhile, China announced last November that it will construct 148 thousand megawatts of new coal-fired power plants. One 1,600 MW Chinese coal plant running 80% of the time will emit more fossil-fuel carbon dioxide in a year than the entire state of Vermont. The Chinese program is building the equivalent of 92 such plants.
John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute.