By Rob Roper
Sen. Chris Bray, D-Addison, wants to have the clean heat standard bill, S.5, out of his committee by the middle of this month. That deadline is now just days away.
But instead of excitement and adulation surrounding the impending birth of what has been described as the premiere climate change bill of this legislative session, Bray and his committee are getting push back from some unexpected quarters. This has led to some testy exchanges between lawmakers and witnesses.
On Thursday, Feb. 9, Steve Crowley of the Vermont chapter of the Sierra Club showed up to testify. One would expect the Sierra Club to be leading the charge on any climate change bill, but Crowley expressed reservations for two main reasons: the bill’s allowance of biofuels to be counted as renewable energy and the fact that the clean heat “credit” system — the main feature of the bill — is terribly regressive.
Crowley not only placed the “regressive” label on the bill, he gave a detailed explanation and description of exactly how the cost of clean heat credits will be disproportionately loaded onto the backs of those who can least afford it.
The way the “credit” system would work is fuel dealers who sell fossil-based heating fuels will have to purchase “credits” for every ton of carbon their products produce when burned to keep Vermonters warm. The cost of those credits will be necessarily passed along to the customer in the form of higher heating fuel costs. (The Scott administration estimates this will add at least an additional 70 cents per gallon to oil, propane, natural gas, and kerosene.) The revenue from these credits will be used to subsidize some Vermonters’ ability to switch from fossil fuel heating systems to electricity based systems and/or to weatherize their homes.
The system, as Sen. Dick McCormack, D-Windsor, described to Crowley, is based on a “carrot and stick” approach. People who get off of fossil fuels are rewarded, and those who remain using fossil fuels get punished with higher prices.
Crowley explained that those who are most able to make the switch — able to pay the upfront costs for heat pumps, weatherization, etc. — tend to be wealthier. Those facing the most and biggest obstacles to adopting new technologies tend to be poorer and are likely to be stuck at the end of the line.
“As you have fewer and fewer gallons [of fossil heating fuels] sold — that’s what we’re supposed to do with the program — and you have more and more credits required, and they’re going to be more expensive, then I think you have a real crunch here,” Crowley said. “… This kind of program is inherently regressive. It puts quite a burden on low-income users. … So I look at the dynamic here with the decreasing base of sales and the increasing costs as an accident waiting to happen with this whole program.”
This caused Sen. MacDonald, D-Orange, to fly off the handle and basically accuse Crowley of sabotaging the passage of the bill by pointing out its flaws: “Two years from now we will be talking about the mythical bill that didn’t pass. … We’ve got some time to craft a bill that may or may not pass. Help us craft the bill. Please!”
Crowley was somewhat taken aback by the outburst and explained that his comments were intended to help. When MacDonald demanded specific legislative language, Crowley provided some — but it wasn’t a suggestion MacDonald or his colleagues wanted to hear, so they just sat sulking as the critique rolled on.
Later, after Crowley raised some serious problems with the “Default Delivery Agent (DDA)” concept as drafted in the bill (if fuel dealers cannot create credits by their own actions, they can pay the DDA to assume responsibility) it was Chairman Bray’s turn to seethe.
“I don’t want the notion of a problem floating out there that makes people fearful of what’s coming,” Bray said.
This has been the attitude of Bray and this committee throughout the process — don’t acknowledge the many problems in the bill. Don’t allow anyone to speak ill of the bill. Steve Crowley, who believes in the goals of the Global Warming Solutions Act and of the Clean Heat Standard, made a good faith attempt to fix a bill he would like to see, with some changes, become law. His mistake was believing that these senators care what anyone who disagrees with them thinks, or what damage this bill could do to ordinary people should it become law.
Rob Roper is a freelance writer who has been involved with Vermont politics and policy for over 20 years. © Copyright True North Reports 2023. All rights reserved.