When It Comes to the Environment, Who Better Than a Gas Man?

Is it just coincidence that Gov. Phil Scott appointed a former natural gas mogul to a state environmental board at a time when global warming is wreaking havoc on large swaths of the planet? Or is he indulging in uncharacteristic irony?

Scott announced Monday that Don Rendall, former CEO of Vermont Gas, will become interim chair of the Vermont Natural Resources Board. I have to admit I had no idea what the NRB was, so I visited its website. And there I found quite a bit of food for thought.

The Board, for those as clueless as I, oversees and enforces Act 250, Vermont’s land-use law that seeks to minimize the environmental impact of development. As the only full-time state employee on the board, the chair tends to dominate the process. As the Board’s website makes clear, “The [Act 250] Enforcement Program is directed by the Chair of the NRB.”

Rendall retired last fall after five years as Vermont Gas CEO. During his tenure, the company launched its Addison County pipeline project which was the subject of protests and lawsuits and, as VTDigger put it, still faces “multiple ongoing Public Utility Commission investigations.” Previously, Rendall had been an executive at Green Mountain Power. No hint of environmental expertise in his C.V.

Vermont Gas has touted natural gas as a low-cost, environmentally-friendly fossil fuel. The climate activist group 350Vermont, which created the above illustration, would call that “greenwashing.”

So why is the man who pushed the pipeline the right choice for this job?

“Don has the experience to understand the importance of having a clear, predictable and consistent regulatory process,” said the governor in announcing the appointment.

“Clear, predictable and consistent” has been Scott’s mantra in his push for Act 250 reform. The cynically inclined might read that as “permissive” or “removing barriers to development.” If that is Scott’s intent, then a Gas Man is a perfectly reasonable choice.

But if he wanted someone with experience in the Act 250 process, Rendall’s not the guy. Compare him with the person he’s replacing: Former state senator Diane Snelling, an old-fashioned Jim Jeffords sort of Republican with a positive record on environmental issues. Snelling wrote the following passage that appears on the NRB’s homepage:

Act 250 was enacted by the Vermont legislature in 1970 to protect the environment in balance with sustainable development. The law sets goals and priorities for environmental and scenic protections and is responsible for helping Vermont retain its rural character, preserve the natural environment and support the state’s environmental diversity – which foster distinctive, attractive communities with a strong sense of place.

That’s a pretty strong statement, and there’s no mention of a Slip-N-Slide regulatory process that makes life easier for developers. Makes you wonder if Snelling is leaving the Board because she’s out of sync with the administration, doesn’t it?

Snelling’s departure means that all five members of the NRB are Scott appointees. All five are also men. And from publicly available information, I see no particular environmental focus or experience among the NRB’s other four members. So who are these people?

Let’s start with Don Turner. Former House Minority Leader, town manager of Milton, and a pretty conservative Republican (although not at all Trumpy, I should make clear). Good guy. But I think I can guess at his views on Act 250.

Then we have Steve Larrabee, former Republican state representative and former chair of the VTGOP. And, for good measure, owner of a building supply firm. Ya think he’s a fan of development?

Next up is Brad Aldrich, the closest thing to an environmental professional on the Board. He’s a founding partner in Aldrich + Elliott, a leading water resource engineering firm. I mean, his profession is about development, but at least it’s development with an eye toward minimizing environmental impact.

Finally, there’s Andrew Collier, about whom I could find very little information. Well, there’s an “Andrew Collier” who’s the author of “Marx,” a book described as “an accessible and jargon-free introduction breathing new life into the achievements of Karl Marx.” I don’t think that’s our guy.

No, the NRB’s Andrew Collier is on the town of Westford’s Development Review Board, and that’s all I can tell you about him.

But let’s leave Collier aside for now. We’re left with four Scott-appointed members with no known environmental orientation or background, and at least two who can safely be characterized as pro-development. (I’m not counting Rendall there; your mileage may vary.)

The governor’s been lobbying hard for Act 250 reform, and has repeatedly expressed his displeasure with the Legislature’s failure to establish a, how’d he put it, “clear, predictable and consistent regulatory process.”

The Board can’t rewrite the law. But it’s in charge of how it’s enforced, and that’s quite a bit of power. I’m left to wonder if Scott isn’t trying to accomplish via appointment what he can’t get the Legislature to go along with.

And, as I recently wrote on another subject, this is yet another consequence of the Democrats basically rolling over and playing dead in gubernatorial elections. Phil Scott is a moderate by Republican standards and is, as we all know, A Nice Guy. But he wants to make development easier in Vermont, and he thinks Don Rendall is a spiffy choice for a crucial environmental post. This is what you get when you let the Republicans hold the governorship.

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