Commentary: Are We Done With Costly CO2 Emissions Reductions?

On December 17, 2014, following a surprisingly narrow reelection victory, Gov. Peter Shumlin announced that he was abandoning his long-pursued legislative priority, enactment of the nation’s first single payer health care system. That date became an historic marker in Vermont’s modern political history.

Another historic date may well turn out to be August 25, 2023. Why this date is comparable to the 2014 date will become apparent with a bit of

Since 2008 the state’s climate change activists had urged passage of legislation for “carbon pricing”  to reduce global carbon dioxide emissions. That means making gasoline, diesel, heating oil, natural gas, kerosene and propane more costly to Vermont users by levying new taxes, or by complex regulatory schemes designed to produce the same effect.

Previous proposals for carbon pricing had foundered. Vermonters didn’t see any good reason to pay higher prices for essential energy. But on June 1, 2017 President Donald Trump abandoned the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement, championed by President Obama. Almost immediately 25 Governors joined in a U.S. Climate Alliance, committed to achieving their states’ share of the Paris reductions. Vermont Governor Phil Scott was an early signer.

With Scott presumably on board, the climate activists hit upon a new strategy: to convert the carbon dioxide emissions goals adopted in the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 into hard, enforceable mandates. If the regulatory schemes to drive down emissions failed to achieve the statutory mandates by 2025 and 2030, the amended 2006 Act would authorize “any person” to bring a lawsuit to get a judge to mandate more intense action by the bureaucrats until the reductions were achieved.

That requirement, along with the Act’s creation of a government-within-the-government “Vermont Climate Council”, was too much for Gov. Scott. In September 2020 he vetoed the more restrictive GWSA. The Democrats, for whom the GWSA mandate had become the Holy Grail of climate change activism, overrode his veto.

The Democrats then set out to raise the costs of fossil transportation fuel to meet Vermont’s GWSA mandate. But the multistate Transportation Climate Initiative  - a gasoline and diesel fuel tax – collapsed in late 2021. Six months later their Clean Heat Standard – the pseudo-tax to make heating fuel more costly - fell to another Scott veto.

Vermont, with climate activists in charge of the legislature, couldn’t seem to find a way to meet their own emissions reduction mandates. With a 13-seat House gain in 2022, the Democratic leadership was able to push through another Clean Heat Standard bill in May 2023, over yet another Scott veto. This was the deceptively titled “Affordable Heating Act” (S.5). But that Act can’t produce any emissions reductions until 2025 or 2026.

That means that Vermont can’t meet its stringent 2025 emissions requirement or even its 2030 requirement. Says the Energy Action Network in its 2023 report, “modeling done for the Vermont Climate Council shows that meeting our 2025 and 2030 legal obligations is possible given current technology — but not without additional policy action and investment.”

So, can we expect additional policy action and investment? There would have to be a gasoline and diesel tax, or a Clean Heat Standard, put into effect now to have a chance. The latter is stalled in a “study period” until 2025, and it’s not likely the Democrats will want to go into the 2024 election congratulating themselves for increasing gasoline and diesel fuel taxes.

Now we arrive at August 25, 2023. On that day the Democratic House leader, Speaker Jill Krowinski, sent a letter to all the members of the Climate Council. Climate change is marching on! Catastrophic floods! Torrential rains! We must secure a fossil fuel free future!

And so we must redouble our efforts, so far futile, to drive down those carbon dioxide emissions?  Uhhh… not so fast.

No, the answer now is “facilitating expedited adaptation and greater resiliency and more equitable communities.” Tools and resources! Technical support! Adaptation Strategies! All, incidentally, common-sense ideas for improving Vermont’s ability to cope with the inevitable next big weather event.

Seemingly reading from Krowinski’s script, Gov. Scott later told Calvin Cutler of WCAX that we need to refocus our priorities at the state level, and “even if we were to fully eliminate greenhouse gas emissions in Vermont, the impacts of climate change will continue.”

Just as Gov. Shumlin on December 17, 2014, sadly laid single payer health care to rest, on August 25 Speaker Krowinski made it clear that she and her House supermajority want little to do with driving up energy prices paid by Vermonters to defeat climate change. Maybe later for that. For now, their slogan is “adaptation and resiliency!”

And, meanwhile, finding some way to escape the GWSA lawsuit.

John McClaughry writes for the Ethan Allen Institute.


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