Vermont Public is independent, community-supported media, serving Vermont with trusted, relevant and essential information. We share stories that bring people together, from every corner of our region. New to Vermont Public? Start here.

© 2024 Vermont Public | 365 Troy Ave. Colchester, VT 05446

Public Files:

For assistance accessing our public files, please contact or call 802-655-9451.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

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

The Vermont House Chamber, viewed through the main door to enter. There is an ornate red and gold carpet and rows of dark wood chairs. The Speaker's dais is at the center-back of the room. The windows behind it have dark red velvet curtains. There is a chandelier hanging in the center of the room. The picture is framed by two white columns. The chairs are all empty.
Abagael Giles
Vermont Public
The House Chambers in the Vermont Statehouse before members head to the floor on March 2, 2023.

Lawmakers in Vermont’s House of Representatives gave preliminary approval Thursday to what many have called the biggest climate bill of the session: The Affordable Heat Act.

The Senate has already given its approval to the bill.

After three hours of debate, House lawmakers voted 98 to 46 to order a third reading of the policy, with every Republican voting against advancing the bill.

Nine Democrats and Progressives joined them in voting no, along with one Independent.

The bill is expected to come back to the chamber Friday for a final vote, but passage today indicates it’s likely to advance then.

Gov. Phil Scott does not support the bill, and the Legislature will likely need to override his veto in order for it to become law.

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 legislation directs the commission to design a clean heat standard. Under the policy, companies that import and sell fossil heating fuels in the state would have to retire a certain number of “clean heat credits” every year.

Clean heat credits would be created by doing things that reduce greenhouse gas emissions from home and commercial heating, like home weatherization or installing cold climate heat pumps.

Among other things, the policy requires a certain percentage of those credits come from helping low and moderate income households.

The bill also commissions a study of how a clean heat standard will impact fuel prices and home heating costs in Vermont, and creates an advisory group of people who are poised to be most impacted to help shape the PUC’s work.

Late amendments

House lawmakers considered four amendments Thursday to the bill that cleared the Senate last month.

A coalition of lawmakers from Southern Vermont pushed successfully for language that strengthens support for residents of manufactured and mobile homes in the bill.

It also states explicitly that the program will be stood up through the rulemaking process, rather than by an order from the Public Utility Commission.

Republicans, some Democrats propose explicit off-ramp in the event of high fuel prices

However two other amendments failed Thursday.

The first, from Rep. Jim Harrison, a Republican from Chittenden, led a group of lawmakers in proposing a ceilingon the price of heating fuel.

The amendment would have allowed the PUC to suspend or amend the clean heat standard if the average price of heating fuel in Vermont increases to 20 cents above the regional average in New England.

Harrison and others said they have received an onslaught of letters and calls from constituents who are afraid it will make fossil heating fuels prohibitively expensive.

“We offer this amendment in the spirit of assuring our constituents that their worst fears won’t be realized,” Rep. Harrison said. “If you are comfortable that the price impact will be minimal, then this amendment should be easy to support. If you believe it will be more and want the bill to pass and allow it to go higher, then you will want to reject this amendment.”

Rep. Laura Sibilia, an Independent from Dover pointed out that this precise scenario — of Vermont's fuel prices being substantially higher than the rest of the region's — has happened often in recent years, without the market pressure of a clean heat standard. She said constituents have been fed “false information that has been pushed out there irresponsibly.”

“This type of a price cap could in fact also come back in 2025 as a recommendation from the PUC. It could be something this body decides they’d like to do,” Sibilia said. “And they will have a lot more information to allow them to do that thoughtfully.”

“We offer this amendment in the spirit of assuring our constituents that their worst fears won’t be realized.”
Rep. Jim Harrison, Republican from Chittenden

But Republicans continued to push for the amendment.

“I have to ask myself: is there any good reason to vote against this amendment? And I cannot see one. If the people have been misinformed, why not put this safeguard in place?” said Rep. Gina Galfetti, a Republican from Barre.

Rep. Seth Bongartz, a Democrat from Manchester said that a 20-cent increase pales in comparison to what Vermonters saw in the market in recent years.

“A 20-and-a-half-cent increase… pales in comparison to the $2 increase we have seen in the last year and a half. It makes no sense,” Bongartz countered. “Our objective here today is to gain control over those wild fluctuations in price currently completely out of our control and replace them with a stable platform that is significantly more under our control.”

The bill that advanced Thursday directs the PUC to study how the policy would impact heating fuel prices in the state before the next Legislative session.

Rep. Sibilia from Dover countered the proposal.

“We know that there were 23 weeks in the last 16 heating seasons when the residential average price of fuel oil in Vermont was 20 cents or higher than the residential average price of fuel oil in New England,” Sibilia said. “... So we know there’s volatility in this market, even amongst our neighbors in New England.”

Republicans push to soften the Global Warming Solution Act

Rep. Mark Higley, a Republican from Lowell also introduced an amendment Thursday, to repeal the provision in the Global Warming Solutions Act — where Vermont committed in 2020 to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions — that allows people to sue the state if it fails to meet those targets.

Speaking from the floor, Rep. Higley said this provision no longer makes sense, given the economic pressures Vermonters face today.

“We’ve had two years of a pandemic, where we’ve had a war that has increased fuel prices and inflation tremendously,” Higley said. “We’ve got supply chain issues, we’ve got workforce issues. And for us to be boxed into a corner with no way out is not in my mind a way to do business and represent our constituency.”

Rep. Sibilia of Dover said legal liability is all the more reason to advance a clean heat standard.

“Let’s say we get sued. We’re in the courts. And the courts say, ‘OK, let’s look… have you adopted a plan? Have you taken reasonable actions to make progress towards those goals?’”

The predominantly Democrat House voted 41 to 103 against the proposed amendment.

“Who is going to do this? Who is going to do this? These are measured steps.”
Rep. Laura Sibilia, Independent from Dover

Republicans who voted against the bill said their constituents had urged them not to support it and were fearful about how it would affect fuel prices. They said the legislation is too opaque for the average Vermonter to understand.

But the bill’s supporters say the status quo is also unaffordable for Vermonters, who are telling them to act on climate change.

In advance of the final vote, Rep. Sibilia of Dover, who is vice chair of the House Energy and Environment Committee, urged her colleagues to support the committee’s work.

“You know, if we don’t do this, then it’s not getting better for our kids. It’s not getting better for people on a fixed income,” Sibilia said. “Who is going to do this? Who is going to do this? These are measured steps.”

The bill is expected back on the House floor tomorrow.

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

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.
Latest Stories