Senator calls clean heat standard a ‘Rube Goldberg’ contraption

By Rob Roper

Barring a few loose ends, the Senate Natural Resources & Energy Committee wrapped up taking testimony on S.5, the so-dubbed “Unaffordable Heat Act,” on Tuesday morning in anticipation of passing it out sometime this week.

In a shocking admission, Senator Dick McCormack (D-Windsor) confessed, “Usually at this point in the development of legislation I can picture after the bill passes what’s going to happen. I can envision what the world can be like after this passes. I get it that what we’re essentially doing is directing the PUC (Public Utilities Commission) to put together a kind of a ‘Rube Goldberg.’” And, “I don’t see how this works.”

McCormack apologized to the other four senators on the committee, saying that it was clear to him that they all had a better understanding of the legislation than he did, and that his confusion was his own failing.

McCormack is selling himself short. He is the only one who does understand that this bill is incomprehensible, or at least is the only one being open and honest about his confusion. It is a Rube Goldberg contraption, and he can’t see how it works because it doesn’t work. In fact, it has been the explicit objective of committee chair, Chris Bray (D-Addison), that nobody is able to understand how the Clean Heat Standard will work for fear that if the people are aware of these details, the people will never allow S.5 to become law.

“We’re starting from a point of managing a certain amount of uncertainty,…” Bray warns unruly askers of uncomfortable questions at one point. This is an understatement. “We launch, and then we have a system of monitoring and assessment that lets us help the plan evolve knowing that it’s not going to be a perfect program on day one.” This is a fancy way of saying we’re going to pass this highly flawed piece of junk before anybody can figure out what’s in it. (Including, apparently, Senator McCormack!)

Bray then bemoans, “The anxiety some people feel about specifying everything prior to commencing….” And while it is reasonable to expect some uncertainties when launching any large program, Bray has made sure there are no certainties at all regarding this law.

How much will the Clean Heat Standard cost Vermonters? Bray and his committee refuse to ask. When the Secretary of Natural Resources, Julie Moore, put forward a number ($1.2 billion over four years) Bray sprung into a frenzied attempt to discredit her math. Does he supply his own cost estimates to refute Moore? No. Those will come after the bill is law and Vermonters are stuck with the consequences. No math is allowed.

Senator McCormack shared a bit of solid wisdom with his colleagues: “Never vote for a bill you can’t explain to your constituents.” Hear, hear! So here is a challenge and a litmus test for the senators. If you can’t explain the following, you should not vote for S.5….

1. Explain the how the “tradeable credit system” that is at the heart of this bill works.

The entire reason behind the bill is to establish a system of  tradable “clean heat credits” that dealers of fossil fuels (“obligated parties”) will have to buy, and others will be able to generate by engaging in greenhouse gas reducing activities such as installing heat pumps and insulating buildings. The incentive to people and businesses across the state to generate, own, and sell these credits is the “market mechanism” that is supposed to make the whole scheme function. But identifying and verifying literally hundreds of thousands of credit-generating actions performed by tens of thousands of actors in obscure places, practically speaking, is bureaucratic quagmire.

Can it logistically even work? The PUC which is tasked with coming up with the operational plan for the Clean Heat Standard doesn’t think so and is asking that the “tradable” credit concept be stripped out of the bill entirely. If the PUC get their wish, what is the purpose of this bill?

2. Explain who is an “obligated party” (the businesses required to purchase credits).

Defining in the bill who is ultimately responsible for buying clean heat credits is an important detail. The senators still haven’t figured this out. What they want to do – make a dozen or so wholesalers of heating fuels the obligated parties – turns out to be illegal, a violation of the commerce clause of the US Constitution. It turns out not all of the heating fuel wholesalers (the big companies that sell fuel to the small retail dealers, who in turn sell fuel directly to customers) are located in and make their sales within Vermont. Some retail dealers travel outside of Vermont to buy fuel from wholesalers in other states.

Wholesalers that do sell their fuel within Vermont borders can be regulated as obligated parties, but those that make their sales outside of Vermont cannot be.

So now what?

Senator Bray tried to answer this question himself and the results were mind-numbingly obtuse.  (Also, quite funny. HERE’s the video!) He finally gave up trying to untangle what he described as a “potentially wrap around the axle thing”.

Why can’t Bray explain his own bill? Because his committee is faced with two alternatives, and neither is practical, and perhaps not even possible, in application.

One, have some wholesalers, the ones that make sales directly into Vermont, obligated parties, and some retail dealers, those who leave the state to buy their fuels and bring them back into Vermont, obligated parties as well. This is both complicated and unfair as it creates a two-tier system for retail fuel deliverers with some as obligated parties having to buy credits and others not.

Or create an even playing field for retail fuel dealers by making all of them the obligated parties and leaving the wholesalers out of it entirely. The problem with this is there are hundreds of retail fuel deliverers of all shapes and sizes and finding, tracking and regulating them will be a nightmare for whoever gets assigned the task of doing so.

This conundrum isn’t “potentially” wrapped around the axle of S.5, it is firmly wrapped around the axle, and the senators don’t have a solution.

3. How will the Clean Heat Standard deliver its promised commitment to equity and social justice for low-income Vermonters?

If S.5 becomes law, it will increase the cost of fossil heating fuel significantly for those who still use it. It will also increase the electricity bills for those who transition away from fossil fuel heating systems to electric. The law says it will mitigate the impact of these cost increases, but nowhere does it explain how.

Without a robust economic impact study — which is being assiduously avoided by the committee — we can’t even know what the potential size and scope of a necessary social safety net program will be. We don’t know who will run such a program or where the revenue source to pay for such a program would come from.

These are just a few of the many questions about this bill that remain unanswered or appear to be unanswerable. S.5 will go to the full floor of the Senate in the next week or two. Now is the time to contact your senators and tell them to live up to Senator McCormack’s standard: Explain how all this works — tell us what it will cost us — and if you can’t do that, VOTE NO!

Rob Roper is a freelance writer who has been involved with Vermont politics and policy for over 20 years. This article reprinted with permission from Behind the Lines: Rob Roper on Vermont Politics,

Image courtesy of state of Vermont

9 thoughts on “Senator calls clean heat standard a ‘Rube Goldberg’ contraption

  1. When I think of leadership and intelligence, Senator McDonald’s name doesn’t come to mind. He told his constituents to get another blanket if they couldn’t afford this regressive mess to heat their homes. When I think of visionaries to lead Vermont out of the darkness, I don’t think of Senator McCormick: “Senator Dick McCormack (D-Windsor) confessed, “Usually at this point in the development of legislation I can picture after the bill passes what’s going to happen. I can envision what the world can be like after this passes”. I do wonder if this senator saw all the other messes he made for Vermont before he voted. When I think of a snake oil salesman, senator Bray comes to mind. In his explanation to committee members, he wrapped everything around an invisible axle on a vehicle that will go nowhere because there will be no fuel to move it. When I think of an intelligent voting base of concerned citizens, the Vermont voter doesn’t come to mind. The voters have created this monstrosity by voting for these god-like elites who could care less about anything except their failed ideology, their egos and their quest to chase windmills and solar panels while Vermont burns.
    Thank a Vermont voter for your misery because it’s about to get worse.

  2. ” what the world can be like after this passes” Clue for ya you self appointed world savior mcdonald, you weren’t elected to fix the WORLD problems. If that is your intent then go on over to China and India and convince them to build fewer coal fired power plants which will do way more good then taxing over taxed VT’ers to accomplish nothing.Just more proof that liberalism is a mental disorder…

  3. Now we know why the USSR collapsed, and why Cuba and Venezuela are so poor.

    Socialists just cannot fit 10 pounds of manure in a five pound bucket, because they are impractical people who should find themselves something else to do.

    How in hell do they get elected?

    • Maybe its the way the voters are educated on the issues which the “Media” presents.
      When you have your hand on the reality control knob, anything can happen.
      Think Biden.

  4. Remember when they wanted equity for our schools? Could they have made a bigger mess? And now we’ve had several rounds of lies and programs pushed on us and who’s benefited? Have the towns been able to keep their small schools? Have the students got a better education? Have the expenses been kept in line?

    Guess what their after now? Your heating fuel, land and forest land, they want to control that too.

    You can look to the medical system for further evidence of incompetence. The people working are doing a good job, but the system promotes and protects the monopoly, that is terrible. 1year waits for physicals? regular 5-10 month wait for work to be done with people in serious pain and also health conditions. All this at a crazy expensive price?

    They want to control everything…….when they do, they can reward their buddies and take a little off the top. Montpelier is far worse than the mob, far worse.

    Meanwhile we’re dealt with crumbs from our paychecks. They want power and money, that is all. It is also their Achillies heal.

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