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June 08, 2020

This Is NOT the Year for Vermont to Pass a Global Warming Solutions Act

Too Many Unknowns; Too Many Higher Priorities

On February 20, 2020, just before we knew that all pandemic hell was breaking loose, the Vermont House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed H.688, aka the Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA) and sent it to the Senate. The Senate sent the bill to its Committee on Natural Resources and Energy. Whether you’re for it or against it, the bill has huge implications for Vermont and Vermonters. It will almost certainly raise energy costs. It establishes a new unelected commission to set energy policy. It allows anyone to sue the state for any real or perceived lack of anti-carbon action

The pandemic hell did hit. Hospitals scrambled to make sure they weren’t overwhelmed. An astonishing number of Vermonters lost their jobs due to shutdown and fear of disease. The Committee, reasonably responding to more immediate priorities, has held no hearings on GWSA according to the legislative calendar.

Carbon emissions have fallen way below the most optimistic forecasts of the UN and others as factories shut and people stopped driving. Some of these reductions may be permanent as many of us have learned to work and hold meeting without driving. Some reductions may be long lasting for harmful reasons; many businesses may not reopen. We simply don’t know yet. Renewables have become a greater part of our energy mix faster than anyone thought possible as fossil fuel use declines. It’s not clear how well our electric grid will be able to handle this high a percentage of wind and solar.

Despite the uncertainty and the priorities the legislature must address, last week there were form letter posts on Front Porch Forum like this one I’ve excerpted below from Stowe urging the Senate to act on GWSA WITHOUT debate or making any changes to the bill.

“We cannot wait another year for this important legislation. If there is one thing we have learned over the past few months in regard to Covid19 and racial injustice - - we need to act and act quickly. For those of you in Lamoille County - - please call Senator Rick Westman this weekend to tell him that you're following progress on the GWSA and you'd like to see the Senate prioritize it, concurring with the House version (which passed 105-37; then there's no need for a conference committee), and pass it before they break.”

Even if you like the bill, it needs work. It’s full of internal inconsistencies. Perhaps these can be fixed in the Senate. It’s ambiguous on whether carbon sequestration (plants removing carbon from the atmosphere) counts towards the State’s carbon goal. It’s an unprecedented (and perhaps unconstitutional) abdication of legislative responsibility. Certainly one would want the Senate to consider the implications of this bill in a state which was at full employment when the bill passed the House and now has historic unemployment and lines for food handouts.

These issues should be aired in the Senate before the bill is passed and negotiated with the House. However, the legislature hasn’t even passed an appropriation of federal CARES money desperately needed by Vermonters. But this isn’t the year for that discussion.

Job one for the legislature is providing a medical and economic safety net for Vermonters already affected by the virus. Job two is making sure our medical infrastructure is ready for a possible resurgence of the virus. Job three is making sure as many Vermonters as possible can get back to work in three distinct scenarios: 1) a severe resurgence; 2) lingering outbreaks and no immediate vaccine or therapeutics; 3) effective vaccine or treatment. The legislature and administration must plan for all three scenarios. Job four is making sure Vermont kids get educated in all three of these possible scenarios. There isn’t enough money or energy for these four priorities let alone anything else.

The more important you think the GWSA is, the less you should want it rushed. We don’t know what emissions will look like next year. We don’t know how vulnerable we will be to further pandemic. We don’t know if we’ll be dealing with an influx of urban escapees or exodus of the unemployed. We must focus on this year’s priorities. Hopefully we will deal with them well enough (and be lucky enough) to consider our next steps on global warming next year.

[The original version of this post mistakenly said that the Senate Committee didn’t hold hearings on this bill.  In fact they did last week. Knowing that, it’s even more astonishing to me that people are pushing the Senate to pass the bill without any consideration of what they heard in the hearing and without even technical amendments.]

 

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