Before Covid-19 hit, 2020 was shaping up to be a momentous year for climate change policy in Vermont.
After a series of publicized protests and Statehouse interruptions, lawmakers were poised this year to move ahead on a bill that would require the state to meet strict greenhouse gas reduction targets.
In addition, the state was considering joining a regional pact to reduce car and truck pollution.
But then the pandemic came.
Now, with state officials and lawmakers still sorting out Covid relief and huge budget shortfalls, the path for moving ahead on climate action is unclear.
One of the pre-pandemic priorities of the Democrat-controlled Legislature was passing a bill, H.688, that would require a panel to develop a plan to reduce greenhouse gas pollution to 26% below 2005 levels by 2025. Emissions would need to be 40% below 1990 levels by 2030, and 80% below by 2050.
Vermont has failed to meet its greenhouse gas pollution reductions goals. The bill, which the House passed earlier this year on a vote of 105-37, would create a climate action panel made up of representatives from state government and citizen experts to come up with an emissions reduction plan by mid-2021.
Included in the plan would be guidance for the Agency of Natural Resources to adopt rules to regulate greenhouse gas pollutants. Missing the new targets could result in the state being sued, and directed by a court to take further action.
The Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee, where the bill currently sits, took testimony last month, before switching gears to reforms on Vermont’s landmark land use law, Act 250. Committee Chair Sen. Chris Bray, D-Addison, said he’s hoping to wrap up both before lawmakers adjourn this month.
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But he’s not sure that getting out both complex bills in short order will be possible, and his committee will prioritize Act 250 reform.
“It’s talking about laying out a plan for the next 30 years, right,” he said of the Global Warming Solutions Act, adding: “We’re not going to do long term planning based on very limited testimony. We need to make sure it’s a good long term plan that will achieve what we’re hoping for.”
And it comes with an almost $1 million dollar price tag for the Agency of Natural Resources to hire staff needed to do technical components of the planning. That cost could be a challenge for lawmakers who are contending with massive revenue losses from the pandemic’s economic strain. The agency has raised concerns about hiring and training employees right now with budget constraints, said Bray.
“But then again, it’s the Legislature that ultimately passes a budget,” he added. “And if the Legislature believes this is a priority, we can fund the positions that would be required to do the work.”
The Scott administration has put forward its own version of the bill, which mainly changes the cause and timeline for citizen suits. Instead of allowing citizens to sue the state if the 2025 emissions reductions don’t materialize, the administration would prefer that failure trigger a retooling of the climate action plan.
Pete Walke, commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation and climate policy lead for Scott, said this would enable the plan to be tweaked based on technological advances and lessons learned in the first few years of implementation.
“If electric vehicles take off in an incredible way, they might become a larger factor in our plan than we attributed to them originally,” he said.
Last month, 30 environmental groups and businesses sent a letter to lawmakers, urging them to pass the Global Warming Solutions Act and two other climate bills. One of bills, S.185, would require the Vermont Health Department to come up with a climate change response plan.
The other bill, S.337, would redirect some state efficiency dollars to transportation and heating projects. Rep. Timothy Briglin, D-Thetford, chair of the House Energy and Technology Committee, said his committee plans to take up S.337 this session, but he’s unsure when.
The coalition argued that the measures would help ensure a “job-creating recovery that improves our communities’ resilience, better protects public health, and cuts pollution.”
Johanna Miller, climate program director for the Vermont Natural Resources Council, said lawmakers have “rightfully” been focused on responding to the pandemic crisis.
“At the same time, there’s still a tremendous need to do what we need to do to tackle another crisis, which is climate,” she said.
Another climate priority of both Democrats and environmental advocates this year was positioning Vermont to join the Transportation and Climate Initiative. TCI would set a regional carbon dioxide emissions cap at current emissions levels that would decline over time to an as yet undetermined amount.
Regional fuel importers would buy emissions allowances at auction based on how much on-road gasoline and diesel they sell in each state. States would then spend the auction proceeds on pollution reducing measures like public transit, making downtowns more walkable and electric vehicle incentives.
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Gov. Phil Scott has said he won’t sign on to TCI until he sees the final agreement between the states, which was supposed to come out this spring. But the pandemic has pushed that release date back to the fall. Walke, who has been Vermont’s lead on TCI negotiations, said the states didn’t feel they could have the “robust policy discussions” needed while responding to the pandemic.
And the governor will be evaluating TCI in a changed world when it does come out this fall. On the one hand, gasoline prices are low, meaning now could be a good time to move ahead with an agreement that would put a small charge on gas, said Walke.
But, with tens of thousands of people unemployed, “now is a challenging moment to do anything that would increase the cost of basic goods,” he added.
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