Politicians come and go, but in Vermont those whose reputations linger are often the ones who are known for their work on electric and public utilities.
George Aiken, former governor and U. S. senator, comes to mind first, but others in more recent times also rode such issues to power. Former Gov. Philip Hoff fought, and lost, a war with the utilities over importation of Canadian power, and the late Gov. Richard Snelling won his own struggle to bring in “power from the north.”
In Aiken’s case, electric power and the related cause of public control over Vermont’s natural resources were a career-long campaign.
While he is remembered in the rest of the country for his Vietnam wisdom – “declare victory and go home” – in Vermont he is equally known for his battles with the “big boys” who ran electric utilities in New England.
Aiken began his political career in 1930, when he was elected to represent Putney in the state Legislature, a victory based partly on his campaign to block the private power companies “from buying every dam site on every brook in Vermont where they could generate 500 kilowatts of power.”
He was then, and remained until his death in 1984, a champion of rural electric cooperatives which, he said, gave farmers “renewed hope, faith and income.”gave farmers “renewed hope, faith and income.”
Electric power has re-emerged as a significant issue in this year’s political campaigns, and will probably continue to play a large role in campaigns over the next few election cycles. In large part that is because the state is facing huge changes regarding where its power comes from and how much it will pay for it.
In recent decades, Vermonters have benefited from long-term power contracts and from maintaining a fully regulated utility system, the last one in New England.
The state has gone from having among the highest power rates in New England to among the lowest. But that’s not because Vermont’s rates have gone down.
Some parts of the region – like Cape Cod – have seen increases as high as 80 percent.
But the good times won’t last forever. In less than a decade those long-term contracts the state has with the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant in Vernon and the Hydro-Quebec dam system will expire. Although there is little doubt residents of the state will still have power at the flip of a switch, they could be paying a lot more for that convenience. The question has become a recurring point of contention between Republican Gov. James Douglas and Democratic challenger Scudder Parker.
Douglas would like a statewide “public engagement” process begun by his administration and the Democrat-controlled Legislature to run its course before the state determines what mix of electrical power to push toward.
The governor has also opposed “industrial-sized” wind projects, which he worries risk the state’s scenic mountains and the tourism revenues they bring in. And several large wind projects have suffered setbacks in Vermont in recent months, although Douglas has little direct control over the Public Service Board, which makes rulings in such cases.
Instead, the governor says, Vermont should concentrate on using vegetable oil for powering diesel engines and other farm and forest fuels, as well as micro-renewable energy projects like homeowner installed, small-scale wind and solar systems.
And no major power supply should be taken “off the table” yet, Douglas has said. A couple of the options still on the table include relicensing the Vermont Yankee plant, whose current permit runs out in a half-dozen years, and construction of a natural gas-powered generating station.
Douglas said recently he has already begun talks with Quebec officials about the future energy relationship between Vermont and the Hydro-Quebec system.
The Douglas administration downplayed recent remarks by Massachusetts Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey, the Republican candidate for governor, that Vermont could host a larger power transmission line from Quebec to her state.
Supporters of renewable power say that without large wind projects, in-state power generation levels would be too low.
Parker also says properly sited large turbines are appropriate for the state.
In Parker’s view, Vermont should be expanding on its first-in-the-nation electrical efficiency program, which he helped create as an employee of the state’s regulatory agency.
The biggest disagreement over energy between Parker and Douglas is over the sale of the hydro-electric dams on the Connecticut and Deerfield rivers more than a year ago.
Parker believes the state should have gone further to ensure the dams, up for sale as part of a bankruptcy proceeding, ended up in the hands of the state or its utilities. Since the price of power has gone up, the value of the dams has also soared – as has the money Vermonters could have saved if they had access to that cheap power, Parker argued during a recent gubernatorial debate.
But officials in the Douglas administration disagree. The governor said the state did try to buy the dams, but was simply outbid. And to make a commitment to purchase the dams no matter what the cost would have put the state or the utilities on the hook for a massive amount of debt. The dams ultimately sold for more than $500 million.
Not every energy issue has lived up to expectations in this election year.
Some politicians thought that a skirmish in the Legislature last session over whether to raise the gas tax to pay the state’s share of a massive federal highway bill would resonate in Statehouse races this fall.
The fuel tax was blocked in the Senate and by the governor, and Douglas has aired a political advertisement in which he accuses his opponent of being “Mr. Gas Tax.”
But Rep. Richard Westman, a Republican who is the head of the House Transportation Committee which passed the measure, said he believes other energy and environmental concerns will supercede the gas tax proposal as political issues.
“I don’t think it is a huge issue,” Westman said, adding that he hasn’t seen many campaigns use the issue.
“I think there are a few, but not many,” he said.
Sen. Richard Mazza, a Democrat from Grand Isle who chairs the Senate Committee on Transportation, agreed that the gasoline tax proposal has largely been taken off the table as a political issue since it did not pass.
He has heard concerns from Vermonters about the cost of heating fuel, he said.
“People have a limited budget for how they are going to keep warm this winter,” Mazza said.
He has also heard from many who wonder if gas and oil prices have been artificially lowered to give the economy a temporary boost. Many constituents believe prices will spike after the election, Mazza added.
“I have heard that over and over again,” he said.
Meanwhile some of the state’s energy and environmental policies – such as standards passed by lawmakers and signed into law by Douglas this year requiring efficiency standards for some appliances including furnaces and boilers – are under threat from the federal government, according to environmentalists.
On Friday, the U.S. Department of Energy released proposed efficiency standards for boilers and furnaces that are weaker than those established in Vermont. DOE will allow states to seek a waiver so that they can maintain their standards, said James Moore, an energy advocate for the Vermont Public Interest Research Group.
Advocacy groups like Moore’s put pressure on candidates and elected officials to ensure that such energy regulations in the Green Mountains are as progressive as they are anywhere.
“It’s up to Vermont and other states to lead the way. That is why energy is one of the hottest issues this election cycle,” Moore said.
By Louis Porter Vermont Press Bureau
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