The words “global warming” never appear in H. 520. Climate change is mentioned just once in S. 94. Yet, both bills are at least partly the product of three weeks of testimony on those issues.
Listening to that testimony in January, Sen. Virginia Lyons said one thing stuck out: The easiest way to save energy was through efficiency.
“That was a very loud and clear message from Day 1, and it resonated,” said Lyons, a Chittenden County Democrat who chairs the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee. “I had an inkling it was a low-hanging fruit.”
Fast-forward two months and energy efficiency is the central piece of the legislation Lyons’ committee has drafted. That panel and its House counterpart each came out with legislation last week that claims a role in combating global warming, an issue that legislative leaders declared would be a priority for the session.
Those who wanted more call these two pieces a modest first step. Those who were leery said some of the legislation might go a little too far but they can live with most of it.
The bills, expected to be combined into one and still subject to change as they go through each chamber, will make up the bulk of the Legislature’s response to the issue for the year. Neither tackles one of the state’s largest generators of carbon emissions – transportation – although additional legislation focusing on fuel-efficient cars is still possible.
Saving fuel or taxing fuel?
The Senate bill would create an energy-efficiency utility that would help Vermonters make their homes and businesses more energy efficient. It would be paid for with a 1 percent charge on heating fuels.
Of the two bills, this is the one that has drawn the most accolades from environmental advocates and the most ire from business. The 1 percent charge is at the center of the ire.
Gov. Jim Douglas, who has accused the Legislature of focusing on global warming to the detriment of other issues, said he strongly opposes the charge. If legislators consider the program a priority, he said, they should find the money to pay for it within the state budget.
This fee, on top of rising costs, a new assessment on employers who don’t offer health insurance and increased state fees passed last year, is a burden for businesses, said Cathy Davis, government affairs specialist for the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Burlington Industrial Corp.
John O’Kane, government relations manager with IBM Corp. in Essex Junction, was lobbying the Senate Finance Committee last week to make companies that already have significant energy efficiency measures of their own exempt from the charge.
Sen. Diane Snelling, R-Chittenden, is the lone member of the committee to vote against the bill. She likes the idea, she said, but would have preferred finding another way to pay for it. She said she’s also concerned that the efficiency utility is being rushed into place too quickly.
Lyons defends the fee as an investment that will save people money while also saving fossil fuel. Estimates are that homeowners could save as much as 30 percent on their heating costs by making their homes more efficient, she said.
“Frankly, it’s a pretty minimal expense to establish a strong commitment to saving Vermonters money,” she said.
James Moore, clean-energy advocate for the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, said home-heating costs have spiraled higher in recent years and this legislation will help cut those costs to Vermonters while also generating jobs for contractors who will do the work.
Rep. Robert Dostis, chairman of the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee, said some members of his group are driven by a concern for climate change, but the legislation they passed last week won unanimous support because it also looks out for Vermont’s long-term energy needs.
The House bill seeks to generate more of the state’s energy from renewable sources, make it easier for individuals or small groups to generate their own energy and for developers to plan wind-power projects.
The bill sets a target that 25 percent of the state’s energy will come from renewable sources by 2025. It also steps up the requirements for utilities to meet any growth in energy use with renewable sources between now and 2012.
Dostis said the state will be in a better bargaining position as electric contracts with Hydro-Quebec and Vermont Yankee expire if more of its power is coming from home-grown renewable sources.
The bill also seeks to encourage renewable energy by establishing tax credits for solar power and setting a system for taxing wind turbines that is designed to give developers a better idea of their costs.
“What it says to developers is we are interested in your business,” Dostis said. “I think Vermont will benefit from having wind in the state.”
Although Douglas is opposed to large wind projects, he said he supports the overall legislation. “I think the bill is one I can work with,” he said last week. “I think the House committee has done a good job.”
Moore said the bill sends a strong message to the state Public Service Board and the Douglas administration that renewable energy must play a significant role in the state’s electric plans, but noted he would have liked stricter rules surrounding what utilities can consider renewable energy.
The bigger picture
After opening the legislative session with three weeks of hearings on global warming amid talk of the dire consequences looming for a Vermont economy that depends heavily on snow, the flow of sap, the tint of leaves and a consistent growing season, does the legislation match the rhetoric?
“As long as they don’t water it down or it doesn’t get vetoed by the governor,” said Moore, who lobbied hard for the legislation in both committees. “Vermont would be stepping out into the lead.”
Steve Kimbell, a lobbyist who represents Green Mountain Power Corp., said he thought legislators listened to concerns while crafting the bills. He said the rhetoric was necessary to draw attention to the issue. “I think what they’ve done is appropriate,” he said. “They’ve taken incremental steps which will advance the broader goal of combating global warming.”
Rep. Joe Krawczyk, R-Bennington, is a member of the House committee who sat through the initial three weeks of testimony on global warming, then retreated to the committee room to work on the legislation. He said he feels good about the committee’s bill, but thought the early global-warming testimony was time poorly spent. “I felt we only heard one side of the story,” he said.
Tayt Brooks, a lobbyist for the Homebuilders and Remodelers Association of Northern Vermont, said he was worried about some of the talk early in the session. He said his organization was relieved to see legislators drop a bill that would have penalized construction of larger homes after they were shown that new homes today are 50 percent more energy efficient than homes built 10 years ago.
“They didn’t make any drastic changes and we were concerned about that with the rhetoric out there,” Brooks said.
Bill McKibben, a Ripton environmental activist whose speech on global warming kicked off the testimony on the issue in January, praised the Legislature for sending a strong message that global warming is important. “They’re more engaged than they have been in the past,” he said.
McKibben said ideally he’d like an even stronger message: a change in the tax system that takes the tax off things that should be encouraged – income and property – and puts it on things that should be discouraged – carbon emissions.
“We’re going to be criticized for going too far by some and not far enough by others,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Peter Shumlin, D-Windham. “That usually means we’re doing well.”
Shumlin said he expects more legislation surrounding global warming next year, including a focus on creating environmental jobs.
Contact Terri Hallenbeck at 229-4126 or email@example.com
THE ENERGY BILLS HOUSE: H. 520 was passed out of the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee last week in an 11-0 vote. It awaits action in the Ways and Means Committee. To view the bill visit: http://www.leg.state.vt.us/docs/legdoc.cfm?URL=/docs/2008/bills/intro/H-520.htm
SENATE: S. 94 passed out of the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee last week in a 4-1 vote. It awaits action in the Senate Finance Committee. To view the bill, visit and search for S. 94: http://www.leg.state.vt.us/docs/legdoc.cfm?URL=/docs/2008/calendar/sc070316.htm
By Terri Hallenbeck
Free Press Staff Writer
18 March 2007
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