Category Archives: Environment

I Realize We Can’t Be First All the Time, But Can We Please Be First a Little More Often?

Ah, Vermont, home of Bernie, cradle of progressivism, always in the vanguard of positive change.

Or so we like to believe.

In reality, more often than not we lag behind other jurisdictions. And I’ve got not one, not two, but three examples to share.

First, we are now officially behind the Biden administration on the right to repair — which allows consumers to act as if they own the stuff they buy. Second and third, the state of Maine has enacted two bills that put Vermont in the shade. Maine has imposed a virtual ban on the use of PFAS chemicals (so-called “forever chemicals”), the compounds that have created a huge mess in the Bennington area. Also, Maine has passed “extended product responsibility” legislation that makes manufacturers responsible for the ultimate fate of their product packaging.

So why are we behind in these areas? Well, all three touch on corporate interests. Our lawmakers tend to wither and fade when exposed to testimony from the business community. Besides, these are exactly the kinds of bills that Gov. Scott frequently vetoes over vague concerns about competitiveness or costs.

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Apocalypse Here

Good evening, Vermont.

On the fourth day of our unprecedented heat wave, tragedy struck the Northeast Kingdom town of Lyndon. One of the many wildfires ravaging Vermontswept through the town, destroying virtually everything in its path and causing an unknown number of deaths and injuries. Search and rescue operations are on hold until the fire can be contained.

Today’s high temperature in Lyndon was 113 degrees. It was the fourth consecutive day of temperatures over 110 in a town where the normal July high is less than 80 degrees. Firefighters had to be pulled from the field because of the oppressive heat and the drought that struck Vermont in the spring.

“Our hearts go out to the people of Lyndon,” said Gov. Phil Scott, promising to do “everything I can” to bring help to that town and so many others. Wildfires are burning throughout the Kingdom, as well as the Green Mountain National Forest, the Champlain Valley, the Mad River Valley, and along the Connecti — let’s just say that there are fires all over the state. Areas not directly threatened by fire are dealing with extreme heat and heavy smoke; health commissioner Dr. Mark Levine has urged Vermonters to stay indoors due to the poor air quality.

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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?

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Bureaucracy Appreciation Minute: The Climate Council

Bureaucracy is often a target for criticism in these parts, but occasionally a situation calls for a plodding old tortoise instead of a flashy young hare. Take Wednesday morning, when the House Transportation Committee got an update on the Vermont Climate Council. The hearing provided a window on the huge amount of detailed work being done by the Council’s 23 members, as a body and in five subcommittees. (Its report to the committee can be accessed here.)

The Council was established by the 2020 Global Warming Solutions Act, which became law when the Legislature overrode Gov. Phil Scott’s veto. Its goal is to adopt a Climate Action Plan by December 1, 2021. That’s little more than six months from now, which is a fast pace for such a body.

The details are, for the most part, boring. But they’re important. One example: As our vehicle fleet goes more and more to electric power, we’re going to need a network of public charging stations. But exactly how much needs to be done? Council members reported today that we need about five times as many as we have now by the year 2025. Determining the extent of the need is the starting point for action. It tells us what priority the charging infrastructure should have in our massive list of climate-fighting tasks, and how much work must be done.

By December, the Climate Council will have assembled all these details into a single tapestry of climate action. And then the real work will start.

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Large Scale Wind Is Dead in Vermont. Is Solar Following the Same Path?

Not Exactly As Illustrated.

The Public Utility Commission is scheduled to hear a case on Friday that could tighten the screws on large-scale solar energy in Vermont, a process that’s sneakily been underway for a while. And to judge by the record to date, its decision seems unlikely to be solar-friendly.

South Street Solar is seeking commission approval for a 30-acre solar array on farmland owned by Middlebury College, which would provide almost one-third of the college’s electricity and help reach its goal of using 100% renewable energy by the year 2028. The project sparked some local opposition because Vermont, but it passed muster with the town planning commission and selectboard.

If the PUC rejects the request or puts significant obstacles in the way, it will underscore a growing problem with solar siting in Vermont: Almost every potential site, even the seemingly ideal, is unacceptable to some.

Everyone is okay with rooftop solar, but there’s simply not enough rooftop acreage to make a real contribution to our renewable energy goals. So where else can it go? We don’t want to clear forest land, we don’t want to impact wetlands or waterways, we don’t want to clutter scenic areas, we don’t want it too close to where we live, and sometimes we don’t even want it on not-at-all-scenic, unused property.

The latter problem killed a solar proposal in Bradford. You know the site if you’ve taken Exit 16 off I-91 or gone shopping at Farm-Way. It’s a large parcel on the outskirts of town within sight of the freeway. There is some commercial development (an auto parts store and a supermarket), but there’s still plenty of vacant land. The site has, I think it’s safe to say, no esthetic appeal whatsoever.

But it didn’t happen because the regional planning commission decided that the land should be reserved for potential development. This site should have been an idea spot for a solar array.

Now, back to Middlebury.

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It’s Amazing What You Can Do With a Billion Dollars

In purely political terms, the Covid pandemic is the best thing that’s ever happened to Gov. Phil Scott. He got to be seen as a decisive leader simply by outperforming the likes of Donald Trump. Throughout the 2020 campaign, he enjoyed a twice-weekly platform on live statewide television and radio. He absolutely dominated every news cycle, and walked to victory in something bigger than a landslide.

And now, state government is swimming in federal relief cash — with more likely on the way. Trump’s CARES Act provided the equivalent of 20 percent of Vermont’s GDP. President Biden’s American Rescue Plan Act is pumping in even more. And if Biden gets his infrastructure bill through, Vermont will get a third massive infusion in less than two years’ time.

The CARES Act alone floated Vermont through 2020 “in aggregate,” as state economist Jeffrey Carr put it. There was pain aplenty, to be sure. But there were winners as well, and the impact was greatly softened by the federal government’s ability (and willingness) to deficit spend. The governor is dead set against raising revenue or increasing the size of state government, but he’s perfectly happy to take whatever the feds will give him.

On Tuesday, Scott unveiled his billion-dollar plan to use a big chunk of the federal ARPA money. It includes just about everything on everybody’s wish list, and provides a huge boost to state initiatives that Scott insisted we couldn’t afford on our own. And the money will be spent over the next four years, which will make it extremely difficult to run against Scott in the next two cycles.

So, hooray for the pandemic!

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Parade of the Usual Suspects

On Wednesday morning the House Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife Committee held a session of Hearing Kabuki, a popular style of performative lawmaking. For the better part of three hours the panel heard from a parade of witnesses, all but one testifying exactly how you’d expect: from a position of naked self-interest. The only exception was Alyssa Hill, an eighth grader from Williston.

She was also the only witness with no financial or professional stake in the issue at hand. Or, to put it another way, the only “real person.” This hearing, as is the case almost every time, was dominated by special interests and paid lobbyists. The usual suspects.

The subject of the hearing was H.175, which would expand Vermont’s beverage container deposit system, a.k.a. the Bottle Bill. The deposit would be raised from five cents per container to 10, and it would apply to a much wider range of drinks: Water, wine, carbonated, uncarbonated. MIlk, dairy and non-dairy alternatives would be exempt. The bill would also increase the “handling fee,” paid to retailers and redemption centers, from four cents per container to five.

This idea has come up before, and it’s been somewhat divisive among lawmakers who prioritize environmental issues. Some want the bill extended to cover beverages that have gained popularity since the original bill took effect in 1973, such as water, iced tea, sports drinks and energy drinks. Others have argued the Bottle Bill is outdated in this era of single-stream recycling.

That argument seems a bit less compelling of late, as the markets for many recycled materials have plummeted. Somehow, that fact never came up in the hearing. There was barely a mention of roadside litter, which was the impetus for the original Bottle Bill.

So, what did come up?

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Herp Day!

One of the small delights of covering the Legislature is the occasional discovery of someone with an unusual profession, who’s really good at their job and really enthusiastic about it.

This time, Jim Andrews. He’s a herpetologist, and since 1994 he’s coordinated the Vermont Reptile and Amphibian Atlas. I cannot tell you how delighted I am to discover that there is such a thing, and that the same guy has been in charge of it for 26 years.

Andrews was one of several experts who testified last Friday before the House Committee on Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife. (Written testimony here, video of the hearing here.) The general subject was the impact of climate change on Vermont’s fauna, which is appallingly considerable. If current trends continue, our wildlife is going to dramatically change.

I’ll get to that, but first I must go on a bit about the herps. The VRAA is essentially a volunteer enterprise, counting on Vermonters to photograph and report sightings of frogs, turtles, snakes, salamanders and suchlike. And they do, in considerable quantity. The atlas’ website has a roster of people who have turned in 100 reports or more.

There are more than 150 people on the list. That’s a lotta herps.

There are, in fact, several operations just like the herp atlas. Collectively they produce the Vermont Atlas of Life, which seeks to identify every living thing in Vermont as well as their range and habitats. The VAL has chronicled over 10,000 species, thanks almost entirely to volunteer observers. It’s ventures like the VAL that allow us to actually measure the impact of climate change on the animal world.

After the jump: the bad news.

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The Climate Inaction Administration

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.

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Was Anyone Really Surprised By the Veto?

Gov. Phil Scott. (Not Exactly As Illustrated)

After the Legislature passed H.688, the Global Warming Solutions Act, there were bits of rose-colored speculation that Gov. Phil Scott might see his way clear to signing the thing. After all, he’s apparently sailing to re-election; he has no reason to fear a revolt from the Republican Party’s sad, atrophied right wing. This might have been an occasion to cement his reputation as a caring moderate, perhaps in anticipation of a future run for Congress.

But no, in the words of a thousand uncreative ledes, he “wielded his veto pen.” And the reasons were utterly predictable, and absolutely in line with his consistent position on climate change: He acknowledges the scope of the challenge, but refuses to support any real interventions. And just for added spice, he threw in one of his spurious constitutional arguments against the bill.

Scott’s approach to climate change is to oppose any measure that would impose enforceable goals before the safely-distant year 2050, cost a single Vermonter a single dime, or inconvenience any Vermonter with mandatory changes in energy usage. His vision of achieving our 2050 goal depends heavily on market forces, future technological advances, and a whole lot of water power from the green-but-otherwise-problematic flooding of First Nations land by Hydro Quebec.

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