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Deflated wind power bill backed by House; Senate future remains up in the air

Senate bill 30 might have gotten the wind knocked out of it this session, but a revised bill – far from its original call for a moratorium on big wind projects – sailed through a second reading on the House floor Friday by a vote of 140-3.

That does not mean, however, that some Senators have ceased trying to pump the legislation back up.

Earlier this session, a majority of Senators took the bill that first called for a three-year moratorium on large-scale wind developments and stripped it down to $75,000 worth of studies. When it got to the Vermont House, the Natural Resources and Energy Committee brought the bill to the chopping block and it emerged slimmed down to only one page. The revised bill called for six meetings during the legislative off-season to address the report and recommendations of the Governor’s Energy Siting Policy Commission.

Rep. Tony Klein, D-East Montpelier, who chairs the House committee, said the six meetings with the House and Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committees would give legislators time to analyze the permitting process used by the Vermont Public Service Board, the weight of town and regional plans, and renewable energy issues related to the electrical grid.

After a final vote on the bill, it will go back to the Senate committee, where it will be greeted by Democratic Sens. Bob Hartwell, John Rodgers and Peter Galbraith – all of whom sponsored the original version of S.30 and strongly backed a moratorium on utility scale wind projects.

“They should concur with the bill as it is,” Klein said. “This was a very, very long and painful process that got to a place where the goal finally became to keep the conversation going. This is the vehicle that keeps it going. This is the vehicle that got an 11-0 vote out of this committee, and a 140-3 vote out of the House. It’s a pretty strong message.”

So, is that all she wrote?

Not if Galbraith and Rodgers have anything to say about it.

Shortly after the House vote, the Senate committee discussed the results. Galbraith expressed his dissatisfaction while clenching a copy of the House bill, which was folded up in the form of a paper airplane.

“Our (bill) at least did something and did something significant,” said the Windham County Senator. “This does nothing, except for summer get-togethers at the taxpayer’s expense. I don’t know my constituents are happy to pay for more talk. As one of my own constituents, I’m not happy.”

Rodgers, who represents the Essex-Orleans district, was particularly peeved that a new study examining the health effects of large wind developments was gone from the bill. A 2010 study conducted by the Vermont Department of Health concluded “that there is no direct health effect from sound associated with wind turbine facilities.”

“Our department of health is an epic failure, a disgrace to the people of the state of Vermont, especially for people who are affected by these wind projects,” Rodgers spouted off.

In addition to these two senators, Sen. Diane Snelling, R-Chittenden, said on Friday that she’d like the bill to go to conference committee so that the two committees can hash out their differences. Snelling would tip the five-member committee vote in favor of such a move.

Galbraith, for one, says that he wants “at a minimum” language from the original bill that passed the Senate, which prohibits “construction for any commercial purpose, including the generation of electric power, … within any state park or forest,” as the Senate version of the bill says.

Klein told VTDigger that his committee removed that language for a good reason.

“Nobody, including myself, has ever argued that there should be wind on state land,” he said. “When you attempt to codify policy into statute, especially when you haven’t done it very carefully and with a lot of testimony … mistakes are apt to be made. And a big mistake was made in that section of the bill. It basically would have shut down forest and parks because you couldn’t cut a tree anywhere as written, and they depend on harvesting trees as a great deal of their revenue.”

Hartwell is less emotional about the bill.

“It sets up a process for dealing with the issues, which is good,” he said about the House bill.

But Hartwell says he understands where Rodgers and Galbraith are coming from.

“There are serious problems with industrial wind, environmentally and health-wise, that need to be investigated,” he added. “This question is: Will this bill, this one-pager, accomplish that?”

One unexpected supporter of the House bill is Matt Levin, who lobbies for the non-profit Vermonters for a Clean Environment. The group’s director, Annette Smith, is one of the most outspoken opponents of large-scale wind developments in the state. But Levin says the anti-industrial wind group will take victories where it can get them.

“You have to get the rhetoric going and the momentum going before you make similar progress on regulations and statutes,” he said. “The issues are being talked about in ways that they were not being talked about six months ago. And we’ve come a long way to raise awareness and raise the legitimacy of these issues. That’s a real step forward.”