Op/Ed

Climate Matters: Big victories for greener energy in Vermont

GREG DENNIS

The Legislature last week achieved several milestones on the way to reducing climate pollution — even in the face of Gov. Phil Scott’s best efforts to keep Vermont stuck in the age of fossil fuels.

A greener Renewable Energy Standard — long a goal of 350Vermont and others — passed despite Gov. Scott’s veto. So did a set of improvements to Act 250 that will open some towns and cities to much needed residential development while better protecting the biodiversity of sensitive areas.

In the process, Scott’s anti-environmental vetoes have placed him even to the right of some of his natural allies. More on that below. First, a little background.

It used to be that veto overrides were as rare in Vermont as snowstorms in July. But in Montpelier these past two years, it’s been snowing all summer. Gov. Scott has been lobbing veto snowballs at the General Assembly, and legislators have responded with an avalanche of overrides.

Scott, a Republican in an overwhelmingly Democratic state, has had six vetoes overridden during each of the past two legislative sessions.

This year, the governor even went after the birds and the bees. He vetoed (and was overridden on) a bill banning neonicotinoid pesticides that contribute to the decline of vital pollinators. He declined to sign two bills that became law: VPIRG’s “make big oil pay” bill, and a bill to protect wetlands and floodplains from the more extreme weather of our deteriorating climate.

Now back to Scott’s rightward shift as the climate crisis worsens. 

His vetoes of Act 250 changes and the Renewable Energy Standard (RES) came even though traditionally conservative power blocs supported the bills.

The RES, for example, was endorsed by virtually all the state’s utilities, which are normally political allies of the Republican governor. Much of the hard work to improve the RES was accomplished in a working group that included the utilities and was headed by Rep. Amy Sheldon, D-Middlebury, and Addison County Sen. Chris Bray.

Under the new RES, Vermont is committed to achieving nearly 100% renewable electrical energy by 2030. The law also aims to double the amount of clean energy (mostly solar and wind) produced in the state and regionally. It will mean more green jobs and less burning of dirty oil and gas.

On revisions to Act 250, Scott also found himself to the right of political allies. The bill he vetoed drew support not just from environmental groups but also from the development industry and the Vermont Chamber of Commerce. In a statement supporting its passage, the chamber said a portion of the bill was “a top priority for the Vermont business community.”

Perhaps overlooked in all this were two other achievements pushed by 350Vermont and others.

The grassroots group recognized the potential of thermal energy networks to generate cleaner community energy and use it more efficiently. That approach, which avoids the need for burdensome bureaucracy, gained approval this session. So, too, did a study committee to suggest ways to protect lower-income Vermonters from electricity rate hikes.

Vermonters have a lot to celebrate at the end of this biennium. Working as a tighter coalition, advocates pushed the General Assembly to approve substantial climate legislation — and to make those approvals stick during the difficult task of overriding multiple vetoes.

Joan Baez used to sing of “little victories and big defeats.” Too often that’s been the experience for the climate movement even here in the Green Mountain State. This year, though, Vermonters can sing a song of big victories.

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