There are many reasons why a liberal voter might decide to support Gov. Phil Scott for re-election. You might be impressed with his handling of the coronavirus. You might appreciate him as a counterbalance to an overwhelmingly Democratic Legislature. You might prefer a calm, careful executive to a new-ideas chief more likely to blunder.
But there’s one thing you can’t do. If you believe that climate change is the issue of our times, you have no business voting for the incumbent.
Let me put that another way. If you vote for Phil Scott, you are not serious about climate change.
There might be a certain level of unwarranted satisfaction these days, given the passage of the Global Warming Solutions Act over Scott’s veto. Some might talk themselves into believing that we can make significant progress on the climate crisis no matter who’s the governor, as long as the Dems/Progs hold substantial majorities in the House and Senate.
There are two fundamental problems with this. First, while GWSA is a notable advance, it doesn’t actually do anything. It sets climate targets and establishes consequences if we fail to meet those targets, but that’s about all. GWSA was, if you will, the first and easiest step in addressing the crisis.
Second, while the governor’s words are full of concern about climate change, his actions have been minimal at best, counterproductive at worst. His administration is a formidable roadblock to climate progress, and will remain that way as long as he is in office.
I think this is why Scott objected so strenuously to a GWSA provision that leaves the state open to lawsuits if it falls short of greenhouse gas reduction goals. He knows that his policies are inadequate to meeting those targets, and that makes lawsuits almost inevitable.
The best example of the executive branch’s power to shape climate policy is the Public Utility Commission, the three-member body that regulates the electric, gas, energy efficiency and telecommunications industries. The PUC has a low public profile, and its deliberations are so specialized that they are beyond the comprehension of mere mortals like you and me. It’s one of the subject areas that reporters hate to cover because it requires careful attention and plenty of time — and it’s hard to make a story engaging enough that readers won’t just click away.
Since Phil Scott became governor in 2017, the PUC has done much to restrict the development of renewable energy in Vermont. In Scott’s first year in office, the PUC (which was then called the Public Service Board) effectively killed large-scale wind development by proposing draconian noise limits. The rulemaking process included a variety of factors, but specifically excluded any consideration of “social good,” such as, say, fighting climate change.
Under Scott, the PUC has repeatedly cut net-metering rates — the amount that utilities have to pay for power produced by smaller solar projects. Example: If you install a home solar system and produce more power than you consume, your utility buys the excess power at a rate set by the PUC.
That rate has been falling, and is almost certainly about to fall once again. Any day now, the PUC will establish net metering rates for the next two years; they are expected to take another plunge. This makes solar installations less financially feasible for homeowners and small businesses.
A separate PUC decision made solar less inviting for larger businesses and municipalities, by imposing a cap on the amount of power that a single entity can sell back to its utility. The city of Montpelier, for instance, has already hit its cap. The PUC has also allowed utilities to impose fees, or increase existing fees, for small-scale solar power.
This is happening at the same time that federal tax credits for solar have been dropping, and will drop again in each of the next two years. It all adds up to a series of body blows to solar energy in Vermont. That leaves us more dependent on non-renewable sources or the dubiously renewable large-scale hydro power produced, often at the expense of First Nations peoples, by Hydro Quebec.
This also reduces the potential for developing a new green economy. According to Renewable Energy Vermont, the state lost 408 solar jobs between 2017 and early 2020. And that’s before the coronavirus pandemic took its toll.
But wait, there’s more! The state’s Clean Energy Development Fund has done great work in encouraging renewable development. But the CEDF is running out of money, and the Scott administration opposes additional funding.
Scott has also repeatedly proposed cuts in funding for Efficiency Vermont. The Legislature has, for the most part, resisted his push, but it’s been a perpetual battle. Scott’s first principle in anything energy related is keeping down costs. Which is fine, but if there’s no long-term vision, you never consider the financial impacts of climate change, you don’t begin to build a green economy, and really, you never get around to seriously addressing the climate crisis. Social good is never top priority.
For further evidence of Scott’s unseriousness when it comes to the climate crisis, let’s raise a glass to his Climate Action Commission, assembled with much fanfare in 2017. Its 20-odd members were heavy on business and industry, and included one single representative of the environmental advocacy community.
Its final report, issued in 2018, was a predictable batch of mush. And it went basically ignored by the administration, which adopted few if any of its recommendations.
We could look at other areas of the executive branch as well. The Agency of Agriculture has been a cheerleader for its industry, and has often been a roadblock to progress on cleaning up Vermont’s waterways. The Agency of Transportation hasn’t done much to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. The governor likes to talk about electric vehicles, but his only significant investment has come out of the settlement paid by Volkswagen for cheating on emissions tests. Otherwise, it’s pretty much all hat, no cattle.
All told, Phil Scott has a wretched record on climate. That is, if you pay attention to what he actually does instead of what he says.
If you’re fine with that, go ahead and vote for the guy. But you can’t do so and claim to be serious about the climate crisis.