Category Archives: Environment

While My Guitar Gently Veeps

It’s been a while. For most of September, we’ve had some high-level stupid (the governor’s scattershot search for consistent pandemic messaging) but a relative lack of the kind of mid- and low-level stupid in the public arena that is the bread and butter of The Veepies. But now, we’re back!

First, the Policy? We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Policy Award goes to the Vermont Principals’ Association, last seen hiding its head in the sand over the racist slurs targeting the Winooski High School boys’ soccer team. In response to the appalling incidents during a game with Enosburg High, Winooski district Superintendent Sean McMannon called on the VPA, which oversees high school athletics, to adopt stronger measures against the use of racial slurs.

The VPA’s response so far? Well, they’re staying out of it until the Franklin Northeast Supervisory Union does its own investigation. Otherwise, well, all they’re doing is considering a season-long ban for a Winooski athlete for allegedly head-butting an opponent. VPA president Jay Nichols says the organization might conduct an investigation after FNSU’s is complete. Franklin, by the way, is investigating the slurs AND alleged violence by Winooski players, so we’re both-sidesing this thing.

Great. But the topper, for me, is that McMannon called on the VPA to develop procedures for reporting and investigating racial abuse. Which indicates that the VPA doesn’t have any such procedure now. Which is, well, stupid.

After the jump: Stupid trooper tricks, a Raider obsession, and a bit of myopic journalismism.

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We Are Just Way Too F***in’ Polite Around Here

Painting by Marc Adornato. See note below.

When, in a previous post, I called on Seven Days to fill its vacant “Fair Game” position with a skilled reporter/observer from outside Vermont, I got a response via Twitter that essentially said that #vtpoli is too “insular” for an outsider to penetrate. (Can’t find the tweet now; apologies to the tweeter.) My response to that would be “Exactly!” Vermont’s politics are far too insular. That’s precisely why we need someone from elsewhere who hasn’t internalized all that insularity and/or has too many friends in the bubble. Someone with the perspective that allows them to see that the emperor has no clothes.

We’ve got a really good example of that insularity going on right now. Last week, the state Public Utilities Commission issued a ruling that wasn’t at all surprising, but that defied common sense. The three-member panel rejected a proposed solar farm in Manchester on esthetic grounds.

This, despite the fact that we’ve got to go all-out in our efforts to mitigate climate change, and that Vermont is doing nowhere near its share on the renewable front. Also despite these facts:

  • All the relevant local and regional bodies approved the project.
  • No one, aside from a handful of NIMBY neighbors, objected to it.
  • The developer went above and beyond the call of duty to minimize esthetic impact.
  • The PUC’s own “aesthetics consultant” said the array “would not have an undue adverse effect on aesthetics.”

So it was a stupid decision that strikes a significant blow at renewable development in Vermont. But that’s not what I’m writing about here.

The subject of this sermon is the almost complete silence from those who ought to be outraged by this ruling: the Vermont Democratic Party and The Usual Suspects in the environmental community. Where was the tsunami of protest?

The answer is, we’re way too polite and insular.

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The Best Indictment of the PSD/PUC Renewable Process Is Its Own Documentation

From the PSD Hearing Officer’s report on the Richville Road project

I’ve heard from several enewable energy developers that the Public Service Department and Public Utility Commission make it extremely difficult to site new energy projects in Vermont. The best evidence for this is a document from within the PSD itself. It shows a process that seems designed to stymie renewable energy development. Since climate change is no longer deniable, this is entirely backward and counterproductive.

The document is a Hearing Officer’s recommendation regarding a proposed 500 kW solar array that would be built by MHG Solar on Richville Road in Manchester Town. (There’s a good story about it in the Bennington Banner.) The Officer goes through page after page of project compliance with PUC standards… and then decides it shouldn’t be built, based solely on some remarkably flimsy esthetic considerations. This, despite the fact that an independent aesthetics consultant hired by the PSD found that the project would not have an undue adverse effect on aesthetics.

The MHG proposal is a textbook example of how to site and design a solar installation. The plan is well thought-out and takes into account every possible objection, and yet the Officer is recommending denial.

The PUC has yet to make its decision. In fact, the commission has scheduled a site visit for this Friday. It may be the developer’s last opportunity to overcome the Hearing Officer’s report.

The Officer’s entire 40-page report (downloadable from the PSD’s website) reveals an apparent bias against renewable energy. If this is typical of the PSD/PUC work product, it’s clear that a thorough reform needs to take place.

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The Public Utility Commission Needs an Overhaul

The Vermont Public Utility Commission is truly a curious beastie. If it didn’t exist and you were creating a regulatory body afresh, there is no way on God’s green earth that you’d follow the deeply flawed model of our Earth-1 PUC.

Or should I say “Bizarro Earth”?

The PUC is what they call a “quasi-judicial body.” What this means in practice is that it hides behind a judicial cloak when it’s convenient, and ignores judicial conventions when it’s not.

For those just tuning in, the PUC is a three-member panel whose members serve six-year terms. Candidates are nominated by the governor, vetted by a judicial nominating board and approved by the Senate. By state standards, they are handsomely compensated; PUC Chair Tony Roisman pulls down a tidy $160,763 per year, and the other two members get $107,182 apiece.

The commission is a hugely powerful body that, in the words of its homepage, “regulates the siting of electric and natural gas infrastructure and supervises the rates, quality of service, and overall financial management of Vermont’s public utilities: electric, gas, energy efficiency, telecommunications, cable television (terms of service only, not rates), water, and large wastewater companies.”

That’s, um, quite a lot.

But if you want any insight into its decision-making process, you’re shit out of luck. The commission conceals itself behind its cloak of quasi-judiciality. Its deliberations are conducted behind closed doors. Commissioners refuse to discuss their work because, ahem, they’re quasi-judges.

This makes their jobs easier, but it is decidedly not in the public interest.

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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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