Environmentalists Both Encouraged and Troubled by the Legislative Session | Education | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

News + Opinion » Education

Environmentalists Both Encouraged and Troubled by the Legislative Session


Published May 16, 2022 at 9:47 p.m.

Rep. Tom Bock (D-Chester) - KEVIN MCCALLUM
  • Kevin McCallum
  • Rep. Tom Bock (D-Chester)
This year's legislative session proved a mixed bag for environmentalists in Vermont, with some pleased with the progress made toward climate goals and others stung by painful setbacks.

On the one hand, initiatives like home weatherization and electric vehicle incentives enjoyed an unprecedented infusion of nearly $200 million in federal pandemic assistance.

One the other, some of the highest priority climate bills were blocked by Gov. Phil Scott, and Democratic efforts to override his veto blew up in their faces.

“I’m feeling fairly sad and defeated for young people and future generations,” said Johanna Miller, energy and climate program director for the Vermont Natural Resources Council. “What will it take?”

The failure of Democratic lawmakers to override Scott’s veto of their highest priority climate initiative — a bill to promote cleaner heating sources — proved particularly disheartening because it came as a total shock to many.

Democratic leaders thought that they had the 100 votes to override Scott’s veto but realized how wrong they were on May 10 when Rep. Tom Bock (D-Chester) voted against the bill, H.715.

To be blindsided by one of their own members on such a high-priority issue stung House leaders, who saw it as a betrayal.

Rep. Mike McCarthy (D-St. Albans), House majority whip, noted that Bock had voted in favor of the bill on two separate occasions and gave leaders no indication he had changed in mind.

“We trust members will talk to us if they have questions, and he broke that trust,” McCarthy said.

McCarthy said he doesn’t begrudge lawmakers shifting positions or voting their conscience in a way that conflicts with the party’s position.

“But that doesn’t absolve you of having some integrity and respect for your colleagues,” he said.

Bock came under significant pressure from colleagues and lobbyists to switch his vote the following day, something legislative rules allow in narrow circumstances. He did not budge. The three-term lawmaker and retired owner of a screen printing shop is not running for reelection because he is moving to Colchester.

Bock said he changed his mind about the bill in the final days of the session after getting deluged with emails and telephone calls from constituents raising questions about how it was drafted and its impact on low-income residents.

The bill would have required the Public Utilities Commission to establish a program requiring fuel dealers to decrease the amount of fossil fuel they sell over time or pay fees in proportion to the carbon pollution produced by those fuels. Alternatively, they could offset those fees by selling more biofuels, installing electric heat pumps and weatherizing homes to cut down on fossil-fuel consumption.

The legislation instructed the Public Utilities Commission to ensure that the program helped low- and middle-income residents switch to cleaner fuels or lower their fossil fuel use, but details of how that would work weren’t due until January 2024, following a series of public hearings.

Bock said he didn’t trust the commission to design the program properly. He suggested more legislative committees should have been involved in the bill’s drafting.

Bock said he was influenced by the fact that many of the constituents he heard from were “individuals who are in environmental groups or consider themselves environmentalists.”

That told him there was anything but consensus on the bill, and perhaps Scott might have a point in vetoing it. He did not realize his vote would turn out to be so consequential and result in "such a hullabaloo," he said.

“I did not know I was going to be the straw that broke the camel’s back,” he said.

The state’s environmental organizations were split over the bill, with some, like VNRC, considering it a crucial, thoughtful step to rein in carbon emissions from home heating oil, natural gas and kerosene.

Others, like the Conservation Law Foundation, the Sierra Club, Vermonters for a Clean Environment  and 350Vermont — an affiliate of 350.org — were concerned that the program would create incentives for fuel companies to switch to biofuels.

Shortly before a key Senate vote, Elena Mihaly, director of CLF Vermont, penned a widely shared blog saying the bill “would widely miss the mark.” She argued it could give fuel dealers credit for switching to biofuels instead of creating incentives for people to embrace cleaner sources such as solar, battery technology and electric heat pumps.

She told Seven Days the opposition to the bill underscored the need for the legislature to work harder to bring about consensus in the environmental community on such consequential policies.

“This was a wakeup call to the dangers that can happen when you are not able to make sure the environmental community has a single, unified voice,” Mihaly said.

She said she nevertheless supported the bill’s passage, though she acknowledged the criticisms may have contributed to undermining it.

The bill’s defeat was such a blow because it was considered the best chance to reduce emissions from the heating sector, which makes up 34 percent of the state’s total emissions, second only to transportation.

The state has aggressive climate goals, requiring it to cut emissions by 15 percent by 2025, 40 percent by 2030 and 80 percent by 2050. If approved, the program would not have gone into effect until 2025. It was the No. 1 recommendation of the Vermont Climate Council, which worked for nearly a year on a climate action plan.

‘This was something that a bunch of people put a lot of effort into, and to see it fall apart at the end was fairly devastating,” said Conor Kennedy, chief of staff for House Speaker Jill Krowinski (D-Burlington).

The bill would have been a key step toward requiring fossil fuel heating businesses to reduce emissions while giving people with oil furnaces lower-carbon options, Miller said.

“People are looking for the perfect solution in a radically imperfect world,” she said.

Miller’s organization was similarly downbeat about the demise of an effort to toughen protections for forests under Act 250 and improve how the land-use and development law is administered. Brian Shupe, executive director of the VNRC, called the collapse of that bill “a terrible outcome.”

Not every environmentalist was in mourning, however. Robb Kidd, the conservation program manager at the Vermont chapter of the Sierra Club, said he was thrilled with the investments in the transportation sector included in the state’s $8.3 billion budget. He called the funding for EV incentives and infrastructure “unprecedented,” and said they amounted to nearly $40 million.

“In the transportation sector, we’ve made enormous progress,” he said.

He noted that $80 million designated for weatherization and another $45 million to help cities and towns insulate public buildings will reduce heating pollution by boosting efficiency. 

Kidd said he understands that some environmental groups are deeply disappointed by the failure of the clean heat standard, but he said the questions raised about biofuels were legitimate.

“In this case, all they needed to do was switch one person’s thought process,” he said.