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Climate bills face opposition from Gov. Scott

VERMONT — In the past week, three of the legislative session’s biggest climate bills passed out of their second chamber, and are likely to head to the governor’s desk soon. 

Those bills include S.213, which would establish a new state permitting system for building in river corridors; S.259, which would require big oil companies to pay for damages from climate change in Vermont; and H.289, a bill that would update the state’s renewable energy standard by requiring utilities to make a quicker transition to renewable energy. 

Gov. Phil Scott and members of his administration have publicly expressed concern about all three of the bills. Asked whether Scott would veto them, Jason Maulucci, Scott’s spokesperson, said the governor hasn’t made a final decision. 

“We’re at the point in the session where things change rather quickly in bills, so he will reserve judgment until final versions reach his desk,” Maulucci said, referring VTDigger to Julie Moore, secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources, for the administration’s positions on S.213 and S.259. 

While the two bills are very different, Moore said the administration’s opposition to both can be boiled down to a similar reason: “The principle — in both of these cases — is good and important. But that doesn’t mean you should just charge headlong into it without doing all of the groundwork necessary for it to be successful.” 

S.213, which passed the Senate in March and passed the House on May 3, addresses development in river corridors, sets new standards for wetland protection and increases dam safety measures. Supporters of the bill say it’s an important policy that will protect Vermonters from events like the July 2023 floods. 

Lauren Oates, a lobbyist at the Nature Conservancy Vermont, said Vermont has experienced flooding with more regularity and severity since Tropical Storm Irene in 2011. 

“We know that that trauma and those damages, physical or otherwise, are going to continue to be incurred,” she said. “And this bill, the Flood Safety Act, is the bill that we have that uses some of the best available science, and then has come up with a cohesive and semi comprehensive suite of solutions that recognize our flood problem.”

Moore contends that the bill does not give her agency the money or time it needs to build out the new permitting program. While the agency asked for roughly 15 new staff members — and the bill would create 15 new positions — “it only provides enough funding for 11 of those 15 positions,” she said. 

While acknowledging the Legislature’s financial challenges, Moore said lawmakers haven’t expressed “any real interest in adjusting the scope of the bill to match the resources they do have available.”

Moore is also concerned that Vermonters may be caught off-guard by the regulation, which could apply to as many as 45,000 parcels in 2028, when the permitting system would kick in. She said she thinks the process could benefit from additional time. 

Oates, who has been working closely with lawmakers on S.213, said the bill balances both limited resources and the urgency of flood-related disasters with the agency’s needs. 

“The worst case scenario of an aggressive timeline is the agency has to come back to the Legislature and ask for more time to do this well and to do this right. The worst case scenario of an extended timeline is more homes are put in harm’s way,” Oates said.

S.259, which passed the Senate in April and passed the House on Monday, would use the “polluter pays” model, requiring the world’s biggest oil companies to pay for damages that their product has caused in Vermont by way of climate change. The money would be deposited into a Climate Superfund Cost Recovery Program Fund. 

Oil companies are expected to put up a fight, and the result could mean expensive litigation for Vermont. 

“I harbor no illusions that Big Oil is going to do anything other than a full court press against this bill, on whichever state or states act first,” Moore said. She recommended that lawmakers research the idea of a climate change superfund, write a report on it, and then determine how to proceed next year. 

“I think, ultimately, you get one bite at this apple and want to make sure you’re doing it in a way that will withstand judicial scrutiny,” she said. “And I’m not sure we’re there yet.”

Ben Edgerly Walsh, a lobbyist with the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, argued that a lawsuit would be worth it if Vermont won. While no one knows yet how much money the bill could bring to the state, “what we do know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, is that the funds that would come to Vermont, if we are successful, would be orders of magnitude more than any potential cost to defend a lawsuit against this,” he said.

Walsh said the bill would “clearly be good for Vermonters, because the status quo is, we have to shoulder virtually all of the costs on our own with no contribution from these enormously profitable companies.”

H.289, which passed the House in March and passed the Senate on Tuesday, would update the state’s renewable energy standard by requiring utilities to buy renewable energy at a faster pace. 

Earlier this year, the Department of Public Service, part of Scott’s administration, gave lawmakers a cost estimate that the bill’s advocates — and later, the state’s Joint Fiscal Office — said was likely too high. 

TJ Poor, director of the department’s regulated utility planning division, who has worked closely on the bill, said the department still opposes it. Poor said the Department of Public Service would have preferred that lawmakers consider its own proposal to update the renewable energy standard, which includes a slower timeline to using local renewable sources. 

“We need to clean up our grid as fast as possible, as quickly as possible, as affordably as possible, because we’re going to lean into it far more” as the state electrifies, said Johanna Miller, a lobbyist at the Vermont Natural Resources Council.

Some supporters of the three bills see a pattern in Scott’s recent and likely future vetoes. Moore said, despite the fact that the administration “isn’t full-throated in supporting any of these three bills as they come out of the Legislature,” her agency is committed to fighting climate change and protecting Vermonters from its impacts. 

The Legislature hasn’t been willing to compromise, she said, and hasn’t fully funded the work it’s endeavoring to assign to her agency. 

“As a result, you end up with this tension that is convenient to portray as for or against climate action, when in reality, I think it’s about trying to make sure we are able to do the work we need to do well,” she said. 

Miller said she’s interested in seeing the administration come up with its own plan to address climate change. 

Referencing S.213, Oates, with the Nature Conservancy, asked what the alternative would be. 

“What are we doing, then, as a state to make it safer, to make it less expensive with respect to flood related damages?” she said. “What is the plan to create a more flood resilient or flood prepared state in the absence of this bill?”  

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