Major climate bill 'The Affordable Heat Act' advances to the House
Lawmakers in Vermont's Senate voted 18 to 10 on Friday morning to advance the Affordable Heat Act.
The climate bill, which aims to cut climate warming greenhouse gas emissions from heating buildings, goes next to the House.
The bill proposes new regulations on companies that import and sell fossil fuels in Vermont, similar to existing regulations on electric utilities.
Thanks to an amendment this week, Democrats say the bill they're sending to the House directs the Public Utility Commission to design a clean heat standard and study the costs. The PUC will report their findings back to the Legislature in 2025.
From there, Democrats say the program cannot move forward without a future Legislature passing a law authorizing it to do so.
Speaking to colleagues via Zoom, Senate Appropriations Chair Jane Kitchel, a Democrat from Caledonia County, told colleagues:
"It would need to be a bill that was passed by the subsequent Legislature, with the same constitutional requirements, meaning: passed by both the House and the Senate and to go to the governor," Kitchel said. "It would then be up to the governor to determine whether the bill should be signed, let go into law without signature, or, in fact, be vetoed."
Some Vermonters oppose the bill
On Thursday, several Republican lawmakers expressed concern that the language in the bill was ambiguous.
"This sets a standard, and then it lets the industry figure out what is the best way to meet that standard."- Sen. Andrew Perchlik, democrat from Washington County
They said their constituents can't afford increased fuel costs and wrote them extensively, asking them to vote against advancing the policy.
Kitchel says the amended bill addresses this concern, by requiring those costs be studied and evaluated by a future Legislature before any new regulation goes into effect.
Also speaking over Zoom on Friday, Washington County Sen. Andrew Perchlik, a Democrat, said this style of regulation is much better than another regulatory option: a tax on fossil fuels.
"This sets a standard, and then it lets the industry figure out what is the best way to meet that standard," Perchlik said. "A tax? There's only one way to comply with the tax. You have to pay."
And while some of the largest companies in Vermont that would be regulated under a clean heat standard agree, some of the smallest don't.
"[High fuel prices have] been very stressful for a lot of families. And yet, we have no control over that global marketplace. Neither do the local fuel dealers."Sen. Chris Bray, democrat from Addison County
Judy Taranovich owns Proctor Gas in Proctor. She has 12 employees, and she, like other propane suppliers, has no option but to purchase fuel from wholesalers outside Vermont's borders.
She says the uncertainty around this policy has been hard to grapple with.
While many small fuel dealers in Vermont are already providing some of the services the Affordable Heat Act would incentivize, some have business models that are very reliant on supplying fossil fuels.
Taranovich says, right now, it's hard to say if her company could adapt.
"I don't know. Honestly, I don't know for two reasons: Number one, I do not have a staff that's trained to do anything but service and deliver propane. But number two: I don't really know the ramifications of what this is going to cost me," she said. "So I can't even make an educated decision as to, 'Should I get out now? Or should I keep moving forward?'"
Hearing fuel dealers in Addison County express that fear and uncertainty is what prompted Sen. Chris Bray to decide this amendment was necessary.
Bray points out that right now, Vermonters who heat with fossil fuels are at the whim of a volatile and largely unregulated market:
"It's been very stressful for a lot of families. And yet, we have no control over that global marketplace," Bray said.
"Neither do the local fuel dealers," he added. "You know, I just want to be really clear that when we talk about record windfall profits to the biggest oil companies... that's not flowing through the local fuel dealers. They are on the receiving end of that pricing, just like the homeowners are."
The road ahead
This isn't the first time the Legislature has considered a clean heat standard. Gov. Phil Scott vetoed a similar bill last session. Lawmakers failed to override his veto by just one vote.
This year, their chances at an override look stronger, but the margins could still be slim.
Three Democrats voted against advancing the policy Friday: Sen. Bobby Starr of Orleans County, Sen. Dick Mazza of Grand Isle and Sen. Irene Wrenner of northern Chittenden County.
Sen. Dick Sears, a Democrat from Bennington County, voted against advancing the bill when it was in Senate Appropriations, but voted for the policy on the Senate floor this week.
Wrenner says she would prefer a policy that was simpler, like creating a version of Efficiency Vermont for home heat, with a single surcharge on your fuel bill.
She represents Milton, Fairfax, Westford and Essex. And she worries the complexity of a clean heat standard would incentivize propane dealers to leave the industry.
"We don't know what's affordable to the average person out there until we ask them."- Sen. Irene Wrenner, democrat from Chittenden County
And she says her constituents bristled at the name.
"I do think that's something we need to be careful about as the Legislature, is telling our constituents how to think," Wrenner said. "We don't know what's affordable to the average person out there until we ask them."
Ben Edgerly-Walsh with Vermont Public Interest Research Group says what most Vermonters want is climate action.
"The Senate did the right thing and listened to the majority of their constituents who do want to see climate action and do want to see a plan to move away from high price fossil fuels."
Democrats have an even stronger majority in the House, where the bill is headed next.
Have questions, comments or tips?Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Abagael Giles @AbagaelGiles.