By Guy Page
Election Day results from Vermont and across the United States may profoundly affect state, national and global energy policy.
On the international level: Emboldened by gains in Senate, which must approve both presidential appointees and treaties, U.S. President Donald Trump has publicly defending himself as an anti-globalist nationalist and has nominated a new Environmental Protection Administration chief who strongly backs his goal of U.S. energy dominance.
Trump withdrew the U.S. from the United Nations Paris Climate Accords June 1, 2017, calling them “an agreement that disadvantages the United States to the exclusive benefit of other countries.” His nationalist, pro-capitalist, free-market vision seems at odds with U.N. policy affirmed by former U.N. Climate Change chief Christina Figueres, who said in 2015: “This is the first time in the history of mankind that we are setting ourselves the task of intentionally, within a defined period of time to change the economic development model that has been reigning for at least 150 years, since the industrial revolution.”
Figueres’ vision was on display Oct. 30 when she advised a friendly audience at Oxford University in England “to [the reporter paraphrased] make a change in their personal lives – eat less meat, use public transport or cycle as much as possible, know where your money and investments are to avoid supporting high-carbon assets, and finally, vote!”
On the federal level, it’s unlikely a gridlocked Congress will agree to challenge the President’s Affordable Clean Energy rule, which promotes all-fuels energy (wind/solar renewables and fossil and nuclear) and replaces President Obama’s so-called “Clean Energy Plan” prioritized wind and solar. In fact the Supreme Court rejected the Obama plan because it was all about picking energy winners and losers, and you can guess who it picked. The pro-Trump Senate is expected to confirm his nomination of Andrew Wheeler, a big supporter of the Affordable Clean Energy rule, to run the EPA.
On the state level nationwide, as Ethan Allen Institute founder John McClaughry and I have both pointed out in recent columns, voters of the solidly blue State of Washington resoundingly rejected a carbon tax referendum on election. Arizona voters said no to renewable energy standards. Colorado voters said no to limiting natural gas hydrofracking. The left-leaning New Republic magazine headline said accurately albeit with sour grapes: “America voted. The Climate lost.” It blamed energy lobby spending, not voters’ awareness that their own prosperity is linked to affordable, reliable, plentiful energy. New Republic also noted that in Florida, would-be governor Andrew Gillum and Sen. Bill Nelson both ran on climate-strong platforms, and lost.
In New England, solar and wind supporters are upset that the heretofore reliably anti-nuclear Union of Concerned Scientists now supports existing nuclear power plants as vital carbon-reducers: “More than one-third of US nuclear plants are unprofitable or scheduled to close. If they’re replaced by natural gas, emissions will rise — with serious consequences for the climate,” the UCS stated Nov. 8. In the same vein, New England governors have praised nuclear power’s value for carbon emissions and power grid reliability.
Here in Vermont, voters gave House Democrats and Progressives a super-majority and re-elected Gov. Phil Scott. This coming session will likely answer two questions:
- Can the supermajority muster enough votes to override an expected carbon tax bill veto by Gov. Phil Scott? Support for the carbon tax is strongest in the Chittenden-County heavy Climate Caucus. The pro-carbon tax lobby group VPIRG reports that 40 percent of all 2019 House members had, as candidates, signed its “No Fossil Fuels Money” pledge. In a state with a powerful, generous renewable power lobby and virtually no fossil fuel generation or refining industry, signing the pledge was not a Profiles In Courage moment. Whether these same lawmakers will go further out on a limb and vote to tax heating oil and gasoline is anyone’s guess.
- Will Act 250 be revised to reduce carbon emissions and promote renewable power development? The Commission update Act 250 is expected to recommend sweeping changes in Vermont land use and planning law. It will probably recommend more regulatory control, and not less. Climate change wasn’t on anyone’s radar in when Act 250 was passed in 1970. Last year’s Act 250 review law cites the importance of climate change. A draft report is due this month, and the Legislature is likely to act in the next Session. The Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee last session considered (but then shelved) a plan to create a new regulatory apparatus empowered to vote thumbs up or thumbs down on proposed development, based in part on carbon output. State House observers would not be shocked if similar powers are proposed for Act 250 regulators. However, energy generation itself is covered by Act 248, not Act 250.
Gov. Scott’s re-election strongly suggests the governor-appointed Vermont Public Utilities Commission will remain skeptical of instate ridgeline wind power generation. It also promises continued State support for Canadian – Southern New England transmission projects running through Vermont, including underneath Lake Champlain. Most Vermonters will be paying less for energy efficiency, thanks to a Nov. 6 PUC decision to reduce residential rates by three percent and keep business/industry rates flat, Vermont Public Radio reported Nov. 13.
Statehouse Headliners is intended primarily to educate, not advocate. It is e-mailed to an ever-growing list of interested Vermonters, public officials and media. Guy Page is affiliated with the Vermont Energy Partnership; the Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare; and Physicians, Families and Friends for a Better Vermont.