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Vermont Senate gives preliminary approval to 'Affordable Heat Act' climate bill

The Vermont Statehouse covered in snow.
Elodie Reed
Vermont Public
Senate lawmakers appear poised to pass the Affordable Heat Act, a major climate policy that would transform how the state heats its homes and businesses.

Lawmakers in Vermont's Senate voted 19 to 10 this afternoon to give preliminary approval to what many are calling the biggest climate bill of the session.

All seven Republicans in the body voted against ordering a third reading of the bill, with three Democrats — Orleans County Sen. Bobby Starr, Grand Isle Sen. Dick Mazza and first-year Sen. Irene Wrenner of Chittenden County also voting against it.

The bill is scheduled to have a final vote Friday, but passage today indicates it's likely to pass tomorrow.

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The Affordable Heat Act aims to reduce climate warming pollution produced by heating buildings. At 35% of Vermont's overall greenhouse gas emissions, heating homes and businesses is the second biggest source of climate warming pollution in the state.

This bill would direct the Public Utility Commission to design and study new regulations on businesses that import fossil heating fuels into Vermont. The commission would then share proposed rules with the Legislature by the 2025 session.

The bill proposes a clean heat standard, a system that is somewhat similar to the way Vermont has regulated electric utilities by requiring they supply more low carbon and renewable electricity to their customers over time.

You can read more about the details of the policy here.

This week, the Senate Committee on Appropriations voted to amendthe Affordable Heat Act, adding language that specifies the rules will not go into effect until "specific authorization is enacted by the General Assembly to do so."

Members of the Senate Natural Resources Committee say this provision means lawmakers would have to approve a clean heat standard a second time in 2025, through statute.

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But Gov. Scott says this language doesn't go far enough and that it leaves too much ambiguity.

He told reporters Wednesday, "it looks like the same language as last year, so that doesn't do it."

Scott says he cannot consider supporting the Affordable Heat Act unless lawmakers write explicitly that the policy will have to be approved a second time in bill form after it has been designed and studied by the PUC.

His office confirmed his position remains the same after the Senate vote Thursday.

Debate on the floor

As senators filed into their chambers for debate Thursday, they walked through a hallway lined with small fuel dealers, urging them to vote against the Affordable Heat Act.

In the weeks leading up to the bill, the Vermont Fuel Dealers Association, a trade group, encouraged members by email to insert notes into their customers' fuel bills citing numbers put forward by the Agency of Natural Resources earlier in the session about how a clean heat standard would impact fuel prices.

During about two hours of debate on the floor, many lawmakers referenced phone calls and letters from their constituents expressing concern about the bill.

Sen. Chris Bray, a Democrat from Addison County who chairs the Committee on Natural Resources and Energy, urged his colleagues to think of this as a vote on whether to study a clean heat standard as a policy solution.

"The bill does not take the program live. That step will now require a vote of the full Legislature in 2025," Bray said. "We will not proceed until we have solid analysis to ensure that the program will do just what we intend it to do: save Vermonters money while also reducing emissions."

Sen. Brian Collamore, a Republican from Rutland County, said he'd be voting against the bill after hearing from constituents who overwhelmingly oppose it.

Several Republican senators expressed concern that the check-back amendment doesn't go far enough.

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"Would you walk into your town meeting next Tuesday and vote for a school budget if the school board just stood up and said, 'Well trust us, you know, we're going to do all these studies but we'd like to have you pass our budget.'?" asked Sen. Bobby Starr, a Democrat from Orleans County who voted against the bill.

Starr said he received over a thousand emails and phone calls from constituents who opposed the policy.

Speaking about her own family's experiences, Sen. Becca White, a Democrat from Windsor County who sponsored the bill, said a clean heat standard is needed so that vulnerable Vermonters don't get left behind in the clean energy transition.

White says people who can afford to switch to heat pumps or high efficiency wood heat are already doing so.

She said absent regulatory support, the people who can't afford to switch will get stuck on pricey fossil fuels.

"So when I hear the concern from my constituents that they today cannot afford their fuel prices, it makes me question if we are doing our due diligence as a government to actually support them and regulate the industry that has profited off them and off pollution," White said.

Concerns about cost vs. climate commitments

Proponents of the bill say a clean heat standard will save Vermonters money in the long-term. A 2022 report commissioned by Vermont's Climate Council found that adopting a clean heat standard, along with the other proposed actions in Vermont's Climate Action Plan, could save the state's economy $6.4 billion over the next 30 years.

Proponents point to data that shows electricity and renewables are much less price volatile than fossil fuels over time.

For example, the price of No. 2 fuel oil in Vermont nearly doubled over the course of a year-and-a-half due to market fluctuations.

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But Scott and other Republicans have expressed grave concerns about what short-term impact the program would have on fossil heating fuel prices, which are currently unregulated.

No independent study has been completed regarding how the policy would impact liquid fossil heating fuels in the near-term, but the bill voted on Thursday would direct the PUC to find out.

At the earliest, a policy could go into effect in 2026, the same year as Vermont's first statutory deadline to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The bill goes to a third reading Friday.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Abagael Giles@AbagaelGiles.

Corrected: March 2, 2023 at 9:45 PM EST
A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that a clean heat standard was projected to save Vermont $6.4 billion over the next 30 years. Doing every measure laid out in Vermont's Climate Action Plan, including implementing a clean heat standard is expected to save Vermont $6.4 billion over the next 30 years. The story has been corrected.
Abagael is Vermont Public's climate and environment reporter, focusing on the energy transition and how the climate crisis is impacting Vermonters — and Vermont’s landscape.

Abagael joined Vermont Public in 2020. Previously, she was the assistant editor at Vermont Sports and Vermont Ski + Ride magazines. She covered dairy and agriculture for The Addison Independent and got her start covering land use, water and the Los Angeles Aqueduct for The Sheet: News, Views & Culture of the Eastern Sierra in Mammoth Lakes, Ca.
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