Vermont Senate votes for scaled-down energy bill; Wind energy advocates prevail in tight vote over altering project approval process
MONTPELIER – Pro-wind-energy advocates won a closely fought battle on the Senate floor Tuesday by gutting a bill that would have altered the process for siting energy projects in Vermont and given local communities more say.
“This is pretty clearly a victory for renewable energy,” said Paul Burns, executive director of the Vermont Public Research Group, who was among those lobbying against the bill.
Those who are wary of wind projects said the vote wasn’t a complete loss, characterizing it instead as a step forward just to have the debate.
“A year ago we weren’t talking about these issues. Now we’re having a three-hour debate,” said Lukas Snelling, executive director of Energize Vermont. “The victory is that this is going to continue the debate.”
The final 24-6 vote to advance the stripped-down bill belied the closeness of the tussle between those who believe renewable-energy projects are for the public good and those who argue that communities surrounding wind turbines and other projects should have more say in whether and where they are built.
It was a 16-14 vote on an amendment to gut the bill that told the real story.
The bill, S.30, started out as a call for a three-year moratorium on wind projects, driven by discontent from those who feel they had no say in projects that have been built and are being proposed. That approach faced fierce opposition from renewable-energy advocates.
The Senate Natural Resources & Energy Committee vastly altered that bill before it hit the Senate floor, instead requiring that energy projects of more than 2.2 megawatts meet Act 250 criteria and follow regional plans at least until next year, when the Legislature can consider recommendations from a special siting commission.
“It gives some reassurance to towns where there are projects that are actively seeking permits,” said Sen. Diane Snelling, R-Chittenden, vice chairwoman of the Senate Natural Resources & Energy Committee, who made the pitch for that approach on the Senate floor.
Nothing about the bill would be “anti-renewable,” she argued. “We know we need renewables. This is about how we get there.”
Sen. John Rodgers, D-Essex/Orleans, who had sponsored the original wind moratorium, argued that the revised bill would still give small communities more say in the siting of projects. He argued that towns in the Northeast Kingdom, where wind projects have been built in Lowell and Sheffield and are under consideration in Newark, need power to combat well-financed developers.
He noted that nothing in the bill would stop communities that want such projects from having them sited there.
Rodgers also argued that the Kingdom has carried more than its share of the burden for the state. He cited the wind projects, the landfill in Coventry and prisons in Newport and St. Johnsbury.
“I guess it doesn’t matter if you ship your smell to the Northeast Kingdom,” Rodgers said. “We have already given enough to this state.”
Renewable-energy advocates opposed the effort, contending energy projects are something that should be decided based on the overall public good.
“These are bigger issues than the individual towns,” said Sen. David Zuckerman, P/D-Chittenden, who introduced the amendment that gutted the bill Tuesday. “It’s our role to figure out what’s in the greater good.”
Zuckerman had gone into Tuesday’s debate hoping his side had the votes simply to defeat the bill, but when Sen. Richard Westman, R-Lamoille, rose to speak in support of the measure, he knew that wasn’t the case.
Westman said he was torn.
“I don’t love it,” he said of the bill, “but we need to have this debate. I don’t want to scrap the whole process, but I clearly think it needs to be tweaked. You can’t do that without a vehicle and a debate.”
Seeing that the bill was headed for a close win, Zuckerman offered an amendment to strip the controversial parts out, including requiring energy projects to meet Act 250 regional planning criteria. He left intact a study of renewable projects, particularly for wind, and the creation of a joint legislative committee to consider the siting commission’s report after the Legislature adjourns for the year in May.
Zuckerman said he was taking out what he saw as the “veto power” of local communities over projects. Energy projects are like highways or other facilities that extend beyond the interests of one town, he said. “What if a town could say no to gas tanker trucks passing through?” he wondered; that would unfairly affect other towns that need the gas.
For a moment it looked like Zuckerman’s amendment failed, 16-15, with Lt. Gov. Phil Scott breaking a tie, but Sen. Richard Sears, D-Bennington, asked to reconsider the vote, apparently confused by the vote. When it was reconsidered, Zuckerman’s amendment prevailed 16-14. Sears voted with Zuckerman, who had also won over Westman.
Those who had sought changes to the siting process were philosophical about the defeat.
“I would have preferred to get the protections for the towns,” Senate Natural Resources & Energy Committee Chairman Robert Hartwell, D-Bennington, said, but he added, “We’ll be back. This is going to continue. It was a good debate.”
The Senate is due to vote again on the newly revised bill, likely Thursday, when attempts could be made to change the bill again before sending it to the House.
The 16-14 vote to strip S.30 of measures that would have required Act 250 criteria to be met in siting wind and other energy projects:
• YES: Sens. Tim Ashe, Claire Ayer, Philip Baruth, Chris Bray, Ann Cummings, Bill Doyle, Sally Fox, Virginia Lyons, Mark MacDonald, Richard Mazza, Richard McCormack, Anthony Pollina, Richard Sears, Richard Westman, Jeanette White, David Zuckerman
• NO: Sens. Joe Benning, John Campbell, Don Collins, Peg Flory, Eldred French, Peter Galbraith, Robert Hartwell, Jane Kitchel, Norm McAllister, Kevin Mullin, Alice Nitka, John Rodgers, Diane Snelling, Robert Starr.
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