Two very different versions of where Vermont is headed in environmental and energy policy were set out by Republican Gov. James Douglas and Democratic challenger Scudder Parker Monday night as the candidates met in their first debate centered on the environment.
In Douglas’ Vermont, the state has made significant strides during his term in office in protecting the environment while easing the complexity of regulatory appeals. While not solved, the state is on its way to figuring out where it will get its electricity in the future, in Douglas’ view.
But Parker warned the state he lives in has been stuck in neutral on environmental issues over the last four years. During that time not enough has been done to clean up lakes and streams, and the state has missed opportunities to prepare for the time in less than a decade when two-thirds of its power supply contracts expire, according to Parker.
Perhaps no issue discussed during the debate hosted by the Vermont Natural Resources Council pointed out the difference in the two men’s views of the Douglas years as clearly as the recent controversy over the proposed expansion of wilderness areas in the Green Mountain National Forest.
Parker said Douglas’ late intervention in the bill, which would have increased the size of the wilderness area, effectively killed the measure.
“He got that bill killed,” Parker said. “I would have supported the bill as our congressional delegation introduced it.”
Douglas said he was “flattered” that Parker believed his letter raising concerns about the number of additional acres being designated as wilderness could have such an impact, an assertion he rejected.
“The ways of Washington are a mystery to me,” he said, adding he is confident that the bill will be passed by Congress before 2007, although lawmakers ended their regular session without passing it. The members of the U.S. House and Senate are expected back for a lame-duck session after the election, but it is unclear if they will take up the bill, which would now add roughly 42,000 acres of wilderness to the nearly 60,000 now protected.
Ultimately Douglas and the members of the state’s Washington D.C. delegation reached a compromise, which reduced by 6,000 acres the amount of land designated as wilderness.
“I want more wilderness,” Douglas said, adding “I don’t know what the exact right number is.”
It was one of several pointed disputes between the two men during their fourth debate, which was watched by well over 100 spectators at the Capitol Plaza Hotel and Conference Center.
The number of people at the event was evidence of the importance of the issued discussed, VNRC Executive Director Elizabeth Courtney said.
There is, she said, “a growing concern that Vermont is at a crossroads. That choices that are critical for the state will be made by us or for us.”
Douglas said that the bill he signed into law after being passed by the Democratic-led Legislature prepares the state’s citizens to discuss how tto map out the state’s future electricity supply and controversial issues like whether wind turbines should be build on the state’s mountains.
“We can plan our energy future together,” Douglas said.
But Parker said the issue “really does not call for more rounds of sitting down and talking about it.”
Action needs to be taken now, and Parker faulted Douglas for the state’s failure to buy the hydroelectric dams on the Connecticut and Deerfield rivers.
As governor, he sad he would have called the utilities in the state together and pushed them to enter a partnership to buy the dams. He would also have urged the towns where the dams are located to use eminent domain to hinder their sale under bankruptcy, Parker said.
“You will pay more and not even know you could have paid less” for power, he said.
But Douglas said that the state did make a bid on the dams, which ultimately sold for roughly $505 million.
“Someone else bid more,” Douglas said. “It would have been irresponsible to simply buy the dams” because of the risk to the utilities’ bond ratings and to the state’s debt load, he added.
As far as energy planning, the basis in Vermont needs to be efficiency programs and increased renewable energy sources including wind power, which also help address the reliance on fossil fuels and the danger of global climate change, Parker said.
If the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant is to continue operating after its current license ends it must be after a full, independent safety review, he added.
Douglas agreed that the state should generate more renewable power, but his emphasis is on small-scale wind project and farm and forest sources of power including such as vegetable-oil based “biofuels.”
He is now in discussions with Quebec officials about the future of the massive Hydro-Quebec power project and whether it will continue selling electricity to Vermont, he added.
The debate was tense, with both candidates using their rebuttal time to question or outright refute their opponents. But both men also got laughs from the audience.
Parker said that the Vermont Yankee plant, as it nears it 40th birthday, should get as thorough an examination as he did at his 60th.
“Everybody my age knows what I am talking about. There is a huge bond created,” he said.
In response to a jab from Parker about delays in construction of the circumferential highway in Chittenden County Douglas joked that as an incumbent he has come to expect “I will be blamed for just about everything, including tent caterpillars.”
By Louis Porter, Vermont Press Bureau
Contact Louis Porter at firstname.lastname@example.org
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