Through the power of one vote, Vermont's pursuit of Clean Heat has faced defeat.
Vermont’s Clean Heat Standard (H.715) — legislation designed to transition fossil fuel corporations and utilities selling heating fuels away from carbon-intensive building heating practices to lower carbon alternatives — was vetoed by Gov. Phil Scott on May 8, despite gaining approval from the state’s House of Representatives (96-44) and Senate (via a voice vote). In a written statement, Scott said his decision hinged on uncertainty regarding the bill’s economic impact.
“As governor and elected officials, we have an obligation to ensure Vermonters know the financial costs and impacts of this policy on their lives and the state’s economy,” he said. “Signing this bill would go against this obligation because the costs and impacts are unknown.”
An effort to override Gov. Phil Scott's veto of the clean heat standard bill failed by one vote Tuesday in the Vermont House. Following that tally, House lawmakers declared they will not further pursue the passage of the bill during this legislative session.
Clean Heat Standard
The Clean Heat Standard was created by the Vermont Climate Council to help keep the state in line with Global Warming Solutions Act requirements. Fossil fuel suppliers would be able to meet the performance standard either by selling cleaner heating fuels or by paying for work done by others that helps residents use clean heating options (such as weatherization, heat pumps, advanced wood heat, etc.). The goal of the Clean Heat Standard is to both reduce climate pollution and reduce costs of home and building heating over time.
The standard would have essentially created a marketplace where fossil fuel wholesalers and importers would buy or generate so-called “Clean Heat Credits” in proportion to the amount of climate-warming emissions their products generate.
The bill had been deemed by many as the most important piece of statewide legislation Vermont lawmakers will undertake this year and an important piece in the national climate change regulatory puzzle.
For or Against?
In the wake of Gov. Scott’s veto, numerous politicians and associations have sounded off regarding the bill’s fate.
“Gov. Scott’s veto of the Clean Heat Standard, and the legislature’s narrow failure to override, is irresponsible and shortsighted,” said Johanna Miller, energy and climate program director at Vermont Natural Resources Council. “Vermont has a moral obligation and a tremendous economic opportunity to put Vermonters to work in well-paying jobs and gradually untether us from our costly reliance on imported, polluting, and price-volatile fossil fuels. With numerous opportunities for public input built into the bill to help refine the policy, plus an affirmative legislative vote before the program would’ve been implemented, these actions call into question Vermont’s ability to do what we will need to do on climate before it’s too crushingly late and costly for people and the planet.”
Neale Lunderville, president and CEO, Vermont Gas Systems Inc. (VGS), shared his support during a Jan. 19 session of the Vermont Climate Solutions Caucus.
“We understand that natural gas contributes to climate gas, and we also acknowledge that we have to do something about it,” he said. “Moving toward our shared climate vision is a key part of what VGS is doing as a company. We want to make sure our 55,000 customers continue to get safe, reliable, and affordable service, but it also needs to be green — really green, so that we’re truly reducing our customers’ carbon footprints. We appreciate that the legislature has provided a predictable course for our customers — one that we and they can plan on and account for. The CHS does that.”
In an op-ed published on VTDigger.org, Meg Hansen, president of the Ethan Allen Institute, a policy research and educational nonprofit organization, opposed the bill, claiming its passage would directly penalize the middle class.
“The question that the Vermont Climate Council and legislators are attempting to answer, using schemes like the Clean Heat Standard, is not, ‘How do we heat homes and power cars without fossil fuels?’ Rather, it is, ‘How do we get most Vermonters to live in smaller homes and drive fewer cars?’" she said. “How will bio-alternatives reduce consumption? By shuttering local companies and forcing middle-income workers and families to downsize or leave the state. Ultimately, the Clean Heat Standard will raise carbon emissions and deepen Vermont’s shameful chasm between the wealthy and welfare-dependent.”
The Clean Heat Standard’s failure, combined with the absence of any clear policy or regulatory tool to achieve necessary pollution reductions, places Vermont in a precarious legal position. Without a regulatory tool guiding its energy evolution, the state is lacking any direction to meet its self-imposed legal greenhouse gas reduction requirements for 2025 or 2030. This lack of progress could very well open Vermont up to a lawsuit.
This column is not intended to debate the merits or worthiness of the Clean Heat Standard. Most energy engineers tend to support energy efficiency measures on principle alone. The question here, given the state's need to meet law-binding climate-related metrics, is whether Gov. Scott’s veto was warranted or not?
Scott, in his veto letter, stated that he has “clearly, repeatedly, and respectfully asked the legislature to include language that would require the policy and costs to come back to the general assembly in bill form so it could be transparently debated with all the details before any potential burden is imposed."
Assuming Scott’s statement holds true, and the proper economic report was not provided, his decision is warranted, right? Vermonters expect and deserve to know the economic impact of a bill before it's signed into law. That's how responsible lawmaking and governing is conducted — at least in theory.
On the flipside, will the legal fees and toll of climate stasis supersede the Clean Heat Standard's "unknown" price tag?
What do you think? Was Scott's veto justified? Should a system of checks and balances afford one person the ability to shut the entire show down, regardless of the reasoning? Given the country’s widening partisan divide, is Vermont’s situation an anecdote for what’s to come nationwide? Let me know, as I’d love to hear your take on the situation.