Vermont lawmakers start new session with Affordable Heat Act, other climate concerns
Lawmakers started a new legislative session in Montpelier this month, and Vermont Public’s climate and environment reporter Abagael Giles has been watching to see what climate-related bills have been introduced. Host Connor Cyrus spoke with her to see what's happened so far and what could be coming as the session advances.
So a new legislative session started in Montpelier, with Democrats having a majority in both chambers. From what you've heard so far from lawmakers and the governor, does it sound like climate initiatives are a priority?
Yeah, it really does. Legislative leaders have been clear that climate is a big deal for them this year. And in his inaugural address, Gov. Scott said addressing climate change and helping communities adapt are priorities for him.
Lawmakers say there's consensus about what the problem is — climate change is already making life in Vermont harder for some people in places more than others. But they'll be looking to see what the governor proposes for solutions. They want to talk specifics.
Vermont is facing some big deadlines in the coming years. The state has committed by law to cut greenhouse gas emissions to 26% below 2005 levels by 2025 — and then go way further. Transportation is the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Vermont, followed closely by heating buildings.
And as of now lawmakers and the governor haven't agreed on major solutions to address either.
I'm curious, are there any climate related bills that have already been introduced that you're watching?
Lawmakers have only been at it for a week, so it's early yet — very early. But at least one major climate bill has already been introduced: the Affordable Heat Act. It focuses on two things: cutting greenhouse gas emissions from heating buildings, and making home heat more affordable. That is starting in the Senate.
I'm also hearing that House lawmakers want to revisit Vermont's Renewable Energy Standard. That's a regulation that pushes Vermont utilities to provide more and more renewable energy to their customers over time. The key number here is 75% renewables by 2032.
Advocates and the state's Climate Action Plan say Vermont should be working toward 100% renewable electricity. And some also say this policy needs to be tweaked to make sure that more of that renewable energy is coming from inside Vermont's borders.
That bill hasn't been introduced yet, so we'll have to wait and see what's in it.
Can you tell us more about the Affordable Heat Act?
So it's kind of a follow-up to a bill last year that Gov. Scott vetoed. That bill was called the Clean Heat Standard, and it was really the solution that the Climate Action Plan called for to cut emissions from heating buildings.
There were some concerns that emerged, though. You know, some lawmakers and the governor wanted to know: How is this going to affect small family businesses like fuel dealers? What role should biofuels, things like landfill gas or liquid fuels made from corn, play?
Like the Clean Heat Standard, this new bill creates a credit-based marketplace where certain companies that sell fossil fuels in Vermont will have to buy or create these credits. The credits come from doing things that help people heat their homes in less carbon intensive — and usually also less expensive — ways.
Fossil fuel prices, as we all know, are through the roof right now. And lawmakers say this new bill really focuses on making sure middle and lower income households get access to things like weatherization or high efficiency wood heat, things that cost a lot up front, but really cut your heat bill long-term.
It also appears to effectively phase out biofuels — again, those liquid alternative fuels that still get burnt to create energy — over time.
But there have been some red red flags raised already about how it treats renewable natural gas, essentially methane that gets captured from landfills or from biodigesters.
So there's a lot to be hashed out still.
The Clean Heat Standard ended up dying after Republican Gov. Scott vetoed it. Lawmakers failed to overrule that veto by just one vote. Does the makeup of the current House and Senate seem more in favor of such legislation actually passing?
Yeah, you know, I think that's gonna be one of the big questions of the session. I think it remains to be seen.
Certainly lawmakers are getting started on this bill early this year. That was a challenge for them last year. With a democratic super majority in both the House and the Senate, it does seem promising.
But the administration told Senate lawmakers just this morning right before we got on air that, as written, the Affordable Heat Act doesn't resolve some of the key concerns the governor had with the Clean Heat Standard last year.
Namely, the administration says before it can support the Affordable Heat Act, we need to know more data-wise about how this credit system would impact Vermont households. The Agency of Natural Resources is studying that now, but those numbers aren't due back until after lawmakers are likely to adjourn this year.
There are also going to be some questions about how the final policy gets approved. The Legislature and governor didn't agree about how that should happen last year. Lawmakers thought they'd resolved it [with this new bill]. The governor doesn't feel that way ... we found out this morning. So we'll have to see how they deal with that.
There are also a lot of new members, in the House, especially. So for something that's a really big policy lift like this, I think it's going to take some time to get everybody steeped and up to speed.
But that is to say: things look more promising than last year.
OK, so those are two energy bills on the table. What about other environmental issues?
Yeah, I’m also hearing that lawmakers will be working on a big biodiversity bill — to conserve 30% of Vermont’s land and water by 2030, and 50% by 2050.
Gov. Scott vetoed that bill last year, but I’m told it’s coming back.
Then too, in the Senate, there’s interest in taking on PFAS in cosmetics, in — get this — artificial turf, in landfill leachate and in pesticides.
These are so-called forever chemicals associated with waterproofing in manufacturing. You know: waxes, ski jackets, nonstick pans, menstrual products.
The EPA has said these chemicals are super toxic, but they’re also pretty much everywhere in our water, our soil. Anyway, lawmakers are looking at what they can do about that, maybe by looking upstream.
A lot of environmental groups in the state are calling for these chemicals to be banned, especially in textiles, cosmetics and menstrual products.
There’s also a new bill that would make it Vermont’s policy to manage for a net gain of wetlands. That’s big for water quality and flood resilience, but also would impact development.
And there is a bill that looks at development in river corridors, and how to make Vermont communities more resilient to floods, in the face of climate change.
And lastly: advocates are continuing to pull for an update to Vermont's recycling law — they want to see more containers, especially plastics, covered.