March 20, 2013

Vote on controversial bill on siting of energy projects delayed

Written by Terri Hallenbeck, Free Press Staff Writer | Burlington Free Press | March 20, 2013 |

MONTPELIER – The Senate delayed action Wednesday on a controversial bill that seeks to add regulations for siting energy projects, aimed particularly at mountaintop wind turbines.

Those who oppose the bill said the delay came because supporters didn’t have the votes to pass it Wednesday. Supporters denied that.

“I have the votes,” said Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee Chairman Robert Hartwell, D-Bennington. “We want everybody to be able to vote.”

The bill, S.30, is expected to be on the Senate floor next Tuesday instead, when the full Senate is more likely to be available.

That wasn’t the case Wednesday, as Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, who presides over the Senate and supports the bill, was out of state at a lieutenant governor’s national conference. That would have removed Scott’s ability to break a tie. President Pro Tempore John Campbell, who also supports the bill, would have had to preside and not vote on the bill, amounting to a loss of two supporters of the bill.

Scott will be back Friday, but still can’t preside over the Senate because he’ll be acting governor as Gov. Peter Shumlin is out of state on personal time until Saturday.

The bill, which started out as a three-year moratorium on wind projects, evolved into a requirement that the state Public Service Board follow Act 250 land-use law regulations when granting permission for siting energy projects. That would give communities more say in the projects, something those who surround recent and proposed projects say has been lacking.

Renewable energy advocates, including the governor, strongly oppose the bill, saying it would make it harder to site projects that are needed to establish energy independence and send a negative message about the value of renewable energy.

Paul Burns, executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, said support for the bill has eroded, evidenced by Wednesday’s delay and the fact that the bill has changed numerous times to accommodate criticisms.

“I think they didn’t have the votes,” Burns said. “They keep trying to whittle it down and they’ve been doing that for weeks in order to cobble enough votes to pass it.”

Campbell said the delay was partly in response to a letter he received from Jeff Wolfe, owner of GroSolar, who threatened to work to unseat Campbell if he voted for the bill. Because Campbell would be presiding over the Senate on Wednesday, he couldn’t vote on the bill, which he did not want to be interpreted as cowering to the threat.

“It would look like I’m trying to skirt the thing,” Campbell said. “This has got to be as clean as possible.”

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