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Caucus: Emissions reduction mandate is linchpin of session’s climate legislation

St. JOHNSBURY – The Legislature’s inaction on climate action bills last session may be reversed next time around as a key House lawmaker and climate caucus members plan to move more sweeping climate legislation next session.

The legislative Vermont Climate Solutions Caucus both promoted and explained its plans while hearing the public’s concerns at a forum Wednesday night in St. Johnsbury. (Additional forums are listed at the end of this article.)

Rep. Sarah Copeland-Hanzas, D-Bradford, said the caucus was frustrated by a lack of progress last session despite a growing desire among Vermonters to wean the state off fossil fuels. They’re hoping the pre-session “public engagement campaign” will allow for the broader input and buy-in needed to pass more ambitious climate bills next year.

A linchpin of their platform for next year is making the state’s emissions reductions goals into legally enforceable mandates, as some other New England states have done.

The bill, known as the “Global Warming Solutions Act,” would turn the state’s emissions reductions goals into mandates and require state agencies to adopt rules to reduce emissions.

Although Vermont has aggressive greenhouse gas emissions goals on the books, emissions have increased in recent years. The state’s most recent data from 2015 show emissions are 16% higher than in 1990 when they are supposed to be 50% below that target.

“We have had pollution reduction goals in aspirational statutes for some time … but the fact of the matter is we haven’t done a whole lot to bend the curve and get our emissions going in the right direction,” said Copeland- Hanzas.

Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts and New York have enacted similar laws.

Copeland-Hanzas said that the details of the bill are still in flux, especially as the House Energy and Technology Committee has been working on a similar proposal.

Rep. Tim Briglin, D-Thetford, who chairs that committee, stressed in an interview Thursday that the committee still needs to work through the proposal. But modeling a Vermont proposal off New York and Maine could make the most sense for Vermont, he said. Both states opted for approaches that bring different parts of government together to come up with a “blueprint” to reduce emissions, he said. In contrast, Massachusetts required the state’s Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs to develop its emissions reduction plan.

Noting that Vermont has already not met some of its emissions reductions goals, Briglin said his committee would be looking at modifying the state’s targets as part of the Global Warming Solutions Act discussions.

“I’m hopeful to have a bill introduced very early in the session … that is what my committee is going to be chewing on and, without question, those targets are going to be an important thing,” he said.

Most of Vermont’s emissions come from transportation and heating; reducing emissions from those sectors has dominated climate policy discussion as of late. Last December, Gov. Phil Scott’s administration announced that Vermont would take part in developing a regional

cap and invest program for onroad gasoline and diesel called the Transportation Climate Initiative. A similar effort called the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative has helped reduce emissions from electric utilities and provided Vermont with funding for energy efficiency.

TCI released a draft framework last month and will unveil the policy proposal in December. States will then have until spring to decide whether to join in.

Copeland-Hanzas said that the caucus supports Vermont joining the Transportation Climate Initiative as a means to reduce vehicle emissions.

“We want to make sure that this collaboration happens regionally because we know that Vermont is not an island, our borders our porous,” she said.

Rep. Scott Campbell, D-St. Johnsbury, said the caucus wants to improve training and outreach to builders to make sure they know how to make retrofits and new builds energy efficient. For example, although Vermont has had building energy standards on the books for decades, residential builders sometimes do not even know about them, said Campbell, a former contractor and former director of the Champlain Valley weatherization program.

“You would think that people would understand the basic concepts of building science and energy performance in buildings,” he said, “But the knowledge base in the construction industry isn’t that high.”

Last session, lawmakers worked on a bill to register contractors – in part to avoid contractor fraud issues. Campbell said a registry would also allow the state to conduct better outreach about building energy efficiency.

The final of the caucus’ “banner priorities” for next session is supporting the transition to electrification of heating and transportation through efforts like promoting in-state renewable generation. Copeland-Hanzas cited as examples a bill lawmakers had passed last session to increase the amount of net metered solar power schools could obtain and a proposal to consolidate electric vehicle incentives from various utilities.

Rep. Brian Smith, R-Kirby, speaks during the forum on proposed climate legislation. Photo by Elizabeth Gribkoff/VTDigger

While many meeting attendees voiced support for bolder action on climate, they also called on lawmakers to think about creative, cost-effective ways to cut emissions that are tailored to Vermont’s rural economy.

Jack Friedman of Danville, former manager of Washington Electric Co-op’s power plant, said that while he supports climate action, electric vehicle technology and infrastructure still are not viable options for many Vermonters, especially with electric grid constraints.

“I would like to hear what’s doable now without driving more people out of the state,” he said. “What makes sense to me is, we have a huge carbon sink in our forests. Why don’t we invest in that?”

Copeland-Hanzas and Campbell agreed that working with farmers and forest landowners was logical for Vermont. A legislative study committee is currently looking into a proposal to pay farmers and others for carbon sequestration and other so-called “ecosystem services.”

A couple attendees called on lawmakers to ensure that promoting in-state renewables was done in a way that is accessible to all Vermonters and does not shift costs to less wealthy ratepayers.

Keith Wooster, of Kirby, called for the state to take an inventory of housing stock, referring to improving building efficiency as a “Vermont solution” that would build off long-standing electric efficiency programs.

Other meeting attendees suggested the state should look at passive housing – a form of building design that meets rigorous energy efficiency standards – to save Vermonters money on heating and cooling.

“That can be done – it’s not experimental science, it’s not rocket science,” said Enrique Bueno, of Middlesex, referencing a recent affordable housing project in Brewer, Maine, designed to meet passive house standards in a cold climate.

John Raser, of St. Johnsbury, expressed frustration that land use planning in Vermont sometimes eschews walkability, citing examples of developments built outside downtowns and roads in urban areas built without sidewalks. Although many Vermonters can barely afford a car, let alone a pricier electric vehicle, some are forced to drive because of these planning decisions, he said.

“You don’t need to put money into it, just say as a state ‘we’re not going to build on the outskirts anymore,” said Raser. “We’re not going to put our schools where kids can’t walk to them.”

Some meeting attendees raised concerns that climate proposals like TCI would inevitably lead to a carbon tax in Vermont. JT Dodge, of Newbury and head of the grassroots group “No Carbon Tax Vermont” asked Copeland-Hanzas multiple times whether the caucus supported mandatory emissions reductions “regardless” of economic impacts.

“I don’t think that anybody who’s elected to the Legislature supports doing anything regardless of the cost,” said Copeland-Hanzas. “I think we’re all about having good conversation and making sure that it’s working for our neighbors, making sure it’s working for the businesses that we own, working for our communities.”

“But otherwise mostly mandatory?” asked Dodge.

“Voluntary hasn’t gotten us anywhere,” she responded.

The caucus will be holding more forums at:

Vergennes, Nov. 22 from 6-8 p.m. in the Vergennes Public Library
Upper Valley, Nov. 25 TBD
Bristol, Dec. 2, 6:30-8 p.m., Bristol Firehouse
Burlington, Dec. 3, 6:30-8:30 p.m., Burlington Electric Department
South Burlington, Dec. 9, 6:30-8 p.m., Fred Tuttle Middle School
Newbury, Dec. 10, 6:30-8:30 p.m., West Newbury Hall