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Vt. House supports clean heat standard bill

REP. LAUREN SIBILIA Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

MONTPELIER — Vermont’s House of Representatives voted 98-46 on Thursday in favor of a bill that would design and study — but not implement — a clean heat standard, a system intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the state’s heating sector.

Most of the Addison County delegation voted in favor of the bill, but Rep. Joe Andriano, D-Orwell, voted nay.

While the bill would establish a clean heat standard in state law upon passage, it would also require a rulemaking process before its provisions took effect.

If the bill becomes law this year, the state’s Public Utility Commission would spend the next two years fleshing out the technical details of the clean heat standard with the help of several advisory groups.

The commission would then bring the plan, along with projections about its impact on Vermonters, to lawmakers in 2025. To implement the program, the Legislature would then need to pass a separate piece of legislation.

In 2025, lawmakers could “approve the rules to implement the clean heat standard, or they may change the rules; they may do nothing with the rules; they may repeal the statutory provisions of S.5,” said Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Dover, who presented the bill to lawmakers on the House floor. The governor would also have another say, she said.

A debate that took place for more than three hours on the House floor Thursday afternoon focused largely on how much Vermonters should know about the bill’s impact now, before the matter moves forward with the Public Utility Commission.

Opponents have argued that lawmakers should not approve a clean heat standard until they fully understand how it would impact Vermonters. The version of the bill supported by the House includes a study that would analyze impacts to Vermonters, the marketplace and the workforce, due to lawmakers by September 2024.

“To be clear, a ‘yes’ vote today will not increase the cost of Vermonters’ fuels. And a ‘no’ vote today will not protect the cost of Vermonters’ fuels,” Sibilia said.

“We will be voting in 2025 with a lot more certainty and detail about those things if we pass this bill today,” she said.

Still, Gov. Phil Scott is likely to veto the bill, as he did a similar measure last session.

Gov. Phil Scott on Election Day in November 2022.
Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Scott is concerned that the process does not guarantee that “all aspects of the potential clean heat standard would be considered through regular order, with the opportunity to (be) debated and amended, through the legislative process by elected officials,” Jason Maulucci, his press secretary, wrote in an email.

“If they were serious about making it a study for the legislature’s consideration, as some have claimed, then they would make it a true study like they do with dozens of other pieces of legislation every year,” Maulucci said.

POSSIBILITY OF A VETO 

The bill needs a two-thirds majority, or 100 votes in the House, to override a governor’s veto. Six of the House members were absent on Thursday, so it remains unclear whether the chamber likely has the votes to pass the bill.

Margins are thin in the Senate, where members would need 20 votes to override a veto. Senators voted 19-10 to pass the bill in March, but Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Baruth, D/P-Chittenden Central, could cast a vote to break a tie.

Lawmakers have titled S.5 the Affordable Heat Act. Much of the debate has centered around whether or not the measure would, in fact, be affordable.

Its intent is to fund “clean heat measures” — such as weatherization, electric cold-climate heat pumps, advanced wood heating systems, the use of some biofuels and other measures — through a performance standard.

Individuals and businesses who help to install clean heat measures would earn credits, theoretically reducing the cost and lowering the entry barrier for more climate-friendly heat.

Meanwhile, businesses that import heating fuel into the state — including oil, propane, natural gas, coal and kerosene — would be considered “obligated parties.”

Each obligated party would need to acquire clean heat credits to offset the amount of lifecycle carbon emissions it was responsible for bringing into the state during the prior year. It could do that by helping to install clean heat measures itself, or by purchasing credits — a cost some stakeholders worry would be passed on to the consumer.

Obligated parties include large fossil fuel dealers, such as Global Partners and Vermont Gas, but also many small retailers who cross state lines to purchase heating fuel.

Rhetoric around the clean heat standard has reached a fever pitch in recent months. Several lawmakers on the floor said constituents had reached out to them in droves asking them to vote against S.5.

Opponents argue the bill could force Vermonters to choose between higher fuel prices or the upfront expenses of installing alternative heating options, overburdening Vermonters with low incomes. Some environmentalists have argued it leans too heavily on biofuels as a climate solution, and called on legislators to remove them from being incentivized through the credit system.

The bill’s supporters argue that heating with fossil fuels is not just environmentally unsustainable for Vermonters, but financially unsustainable, too, because of the volatile cost of heating fuel.

Some spoke about how the bill could save Vermonters money as they transition to new heating options, such as electric cold climate heat pumps, and weatherization methods — particularly with financial help from the new system, and from programs that allow Vermonters to finance some heating projects over time.

Lawmakers proposed several amendments on Thursday. One of the most controversial, proposed by Rep. Jim Harrison, R-Chittenden, would have suspended obligated parties’ requirements if the average price of heating fuel in Vermont rose to 20 cents above the average fuel price in New England. House members voted it down, 101-43.

Harrison said he brought forth the amendment to comfort Vermonters who worry that a clean heat standard could increase their fuel costs.

Matt Cota, a lobbyist for fuel dealers in Vermont, supported the change, and said he advocated for the amendment during testimony before both chambers. It would create “price certainly with a credit cost cap,” he said.

The House of Representatives chamber at the Statehouse in Montpelier on March 30. The body voted 98-46 on Thursday in favor of a bill that would design and study — but not implement — a clean heat standard.
Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Those who rebuffed it argued that Vermonters and lawmakers would have more information about the program’s potential costs and savings in 2025 after the matter is studied as required by the bill. The 2025 legislative body could adjust the plan then, they argued.

Another amendment introduced by Rep. Mark Higley, R-Lowell, would have struck a section of the 2020 Global Warming Solutions Act that would allow an entity in Vermont to sue the government for failing to meet emission reduction requirements.

IN LINE WITH THE PARIS AGREEMENT

The act requires Vermont to drastically reduce emissions by 2025, 2030 and 2050, in line with the Paris Agreement, a global treaty on climate change. Repealing the section would have freed Vermont from installing measures to meet the targets that could burden some Vermonters, proponents of the amendment argued.

Lawmakers rejected the amendment 103-41. Those opposed said they want to make sure that Vermont remains accountable to its emissions goals.

The debate comes as the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns about dire consequences if the world fails to act on climate. While Vermont emissions play a tiny role on a global scale, much debate has centered on ensuring the state can keep pace as the country and the world adapt.

Lower income Vermonters are more likely to be left behind, as systems that pollute less and save money in the long run are more accessible to those who have the money to manage upfront costs that can loom large.

“The Affordable Heat Act will help Vermonters access lower cost, cleaner heat and move away from polluting, expensive, price-volatile fossil fuels,” lawmakers in the Climate Solutions Caucus said in a statement Thursday afternoon. “Fuel oil has spiked $2 per gallon in Vermont over the past two years, and transitioning to better heating options will benefit all Vermonters and will move our state toward a more equitable, affordable, and sustainable energy future.”

Supporters of S.5 argued Thursday that, regardless of a person’s position on the bill’s affordability, it would give a future legislative body more information about whether to proceed.

“We are not obligating that legislature,” Sibilia told lawmakers. “We are informing them.”

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