The biggest climate policy of the year didn't make it out of the legislative session. What happened?
The Vermont Legislature is adjourned and lawmakers are leaving Montpelier without a clean heat standard on the books.
Gov. Phil Scott vetoed the bill last week and this week the Legislature failed narrowly to override that veto.
The clean heat standard was the biggest piece of climate legislation on the docket this session, and was born out of recommendations made by the state climate council in December.
The measure was designed to reduce emissions from the way Vermont heats its buildings. It would have established a credit system to incentivize heating companies in Vermont to help their customers use less fossil fuels.
All Things Considered host Grace Benninghoff spoke with VPR climate and environment reporter Abagael Giles about what the bill’s failure this session means for Vermont’s ability to meet its statutory climate commitments.
“We don’t think that all is lost. We think that we have made progress as a state in understanding the essential components of a good policy for cleaning up our thermal heating sector.”Elena Mihaly, director of Conservation Law Foundation Vermont
Grace Benninghoff: So, a week ago we were hearing that this bill had strong support from lawmakers in Montpelier and now it’s dead. How did we get here?
Abagael Giles: So the bill passed the House with strong support that hinted at the possibility of a veto-proof majority. At that point advocates were pretty optimistic.
But Gov. Phil Scott told lawmakers he wanted a draft clean heat standard to come back to the Legislature for final approval in 2024, after a study of how it would impact the economy.
The Senate agreed to those terms, amended the bill and sent it to Scott with strong support, all those changes as part of it.
So the veto override failed. Did legislators consider pushing any further, or was that it?
Yeah, the governor actually said right after, at his weekly press briefing, that he’d be open to signing a bill — if they came back with the changes he called for. But lawmakers would have had to try some pretty complicated procedural stuff to try to do that.
Some legislators say they felt there was no path forward to negotiate with the governor. Lawmakers are really adamant their bill does meet the governor’s demands and on Wednesday, they dropped it.
So, we know there will be no clean heat standard coming out of the Legislature this session, but what about in the future?
“A performance standard that rewards fuel dealers for demonstrating the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and their customers is top line. That’s absolutely something that makes sense, right? The getting down to the nitty gritty is where things got challenging.”- Matt Cota, president of the Vermont Fuel Dealers Association
Well, environmental groups are kind of split on this. Some advocates say this is just a critical, critical loss. But other groups say we can take all this policy work and use it to craft something better for next session.
In particular, the Vermont Chapter of the Sierra Club, Conservation Law Foundation, NOFA-VT, Rights and Democracy, to name a few, all took serious issue with the fact the bill included biofuels. That’s like old vegetable oil, but also sometimes fuel from soybeans and corn.
Some biofuels ultimately emit as much as fossil fuels. They also incentivize large-scale farming out-of-state. So these groups would like to see these fuels left out of the clean heat standard altogether — or phased out at a later point.
Environmental justice advocates also say that not enough everyday Vermonters got to shape this policy, or understood what it entailed.
Here’s Elena Mihaly from Conservation Law Foundation:
“We don’t think that all is lost. We think that we have made progress as a state in understanding the essential components of a good policy for cleaning up our thermal heating sector.”
But Mihaly says the Conservation Law Foundation believes there’s a way forward for a better version of the clean heat standard.
And you know, even the Vermont Fuel Dealers Association, which would be regulated under this, has said it could support a clean heat standard — just not this bill.
Here’s their president Matt Cota:
“A performance standard that rewards fuel dealers for demonstrating the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and their customers is top line. That’s absolutely something that makes sense, right? The getting down to the nitty gritty is where things got challenging.”
Now, the fuel dealers, they lobbied hard for biofuels and wood products to be part of the marketplace. But interestingly, they shared some of the environmental groups’ concerns that this bill left too much wiggle room for politics rather than science to shape the way the credit-based marketplace was built.
“The certainty of reaching our emissions reductions, without the clear path of a clean heat standard, is in jeopardy.”- Jane Lazorchack, Global Warming Solutions Act director
I know the Global Warming Solutions Act mandates that Vermont cut its emissions pretty significantly in the next few years. Is there any concern that the goals put forth by that act won’t be met now that the clean heat standard is dead?
Yeah, so part of the context here is that in 2020, Vermont committed by law to cut greenhouse gas emissions dramatically, starting in 2025.
And if we don’t, the Global Warming Solutions Act says citizens can actually sue the Agency of Natural Resources.
Now, it also gives the agency the power to step in and make rules to force Vermont to stay on track. That could be through things like bans — something the Vermont Fuel Dealers Association has said it views as worse than a policy like the clean heat standard.
Now, the governor has pointed out that Vermont is making historic one-time investments in climate this year to the tune of $200 million.
But after that, there isn’t really funding in place to do the things the climate action plan says we should do to get us to 2030, let alone to the targets we have to meet in 2050.
Here’s Global Warming Solutions Act director Jane Lazorchak:
“The certainty of reaching our emissions reductions, without the clear path of a clean heat standard, is in jeopardy.”
Together, home heat and transportation account for about 75% of Vermont’s overall emissions. Without the clean heat standard, we’re leaving this session without a comprehensive plan for how to tackle either.
In some ways though, this does open the door for other possibilities. Could Vermont follow states like Oregon and create a standard that regulates fuels for transportation and home heat? That’s something that’s potentially on the table as lawmakers and advocates try to figure out what to do next.