The newest “Clean Heat Standard” bill got its first official review from a Senate committee this week.
The bill, S.5, is now called the “Affordable Heat Act.” The Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy took it up Friday. Its sponsor, Sen. Chris Bray, D-Addison, is chairman of the committee.
“There was a bill last year, H.715, referred to as the Clean Heat Standard. It passed the House and Senate, it was vetoed by the governor, and the Legislature failed to override the veto,” said Bray, while giving the new bill a brief introduction.
Last year, the Clean Heat Standard failed to override Republican Gov. Phil Scott’s veto by a single vote.
Legislative counsel, Ellen Czajkowski, said much of what’s in S.5 is the same as it was in the Clean Heat Standard, however, there have been some changes, which, she said, she’d focus on going over, as many lawmakers were familiar with the older version.
Bray noted that while the current S.5 is considered a first draft; people worked on it a great deal in the months since the last session ended.
The state has passed laws requiring it to limit its greenhouse gas emissions, he said. This must be done responsibly by targeting the causes of those emissions, he said.
“That’s the straightforward physics of it,” said Bray. “So how can we reduce those emissions? If you look at all the emissions from the state of Vermont, the top three are, one, transportation at 40%; heating at around 34%; and agriculture at about 16%.”
The committee has heard from the Agency of Natural Resources on other efforts and measures the government has taken to reduce emissions. S.5 will be the Senate’s response to emissions from the thermal sector.
“The question in my mind is: How do we do it is the most affordable and advantageous way for Vermonters and especially for people with low and moderate incomes for whom the energy spending in their households is particularly high?” he said.
Bray said he’s had numerous conversations with people during the past months about the rising price of home heating fuel, and other factors. Some people have told him they’re paying between $2,000 and $4,000 more on fuel now than they were two winters ago.
Many lawmakers climate advocates are feeling as if S.5 will make it into law this year.
“Given the change in the makeup of the Legislature, given that many candidates who ran on the climate crisis won seats, it just makes sense to revisit some bills that almost passed in the last session, and in fact the Clean Heat Standard only failed to override gubernatorial veto by one vote,” said Rep. William Notte, D-Rutland City, earlier this week.
The issues the bill addresses haven’t gone away, he said, and have become worse, in fact.
“If we were to reach a situation where the governor felt the need to veto this bill, or veto a climate bill again, I think the makeup of the House would make a veto override more likely,” he said.
Some see the Affordable Heat Act as a chance to improve upon the Clean Heat Standard.
“Rights and Democracy is really interested in ensuring we have a just transition to a clean energy future, and so last year we looked at the Clean Heat Standard bill and we just didn’t think that it went far enough in a number of areas,” said Dan Fingas, movement politics director at Rights and Democracy Vermont.
The Clean Heat Standard didn’t address biofuels well enough, he said, or do enough to make sure low- and moderate-income households could afford weatherization and similar measures.
“I think overall we’re going to be supportive of the bill because it does fix some of the transition stuff,” he said.
“There isn’t specifically anything in the bill that actually helps low-income Vermonters access the mitigation efforts, the weatherization and the heat pumps, and we need some zero-dollar, out-of-pocket options for the lowest income Vermonters to make sure they get weatherization and heat pumps,” he said.
The bill also could use language specific to those who rent their living spaces.
“We’ll be letting the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy know that we’re supportive of the bill and that we’ll be asking for some improvements in our testimony, and have our members come and do that as well,” said Fingas. “It’s a huge undertaking. There’s a lot of good things in this bill but there’s always room for improvement and the biggest one right now that we see is this affordability piece for low-income Vermonters.”
Gabrielle Stebbins, D-Burlington, is a member of the Climate Solutions Caucus and a member of the House Committee on Environment and Energy. She said S.5 likely will reach her committee at some point in its development.
“I am very positive about the fact we have a lot of support for this bill,” she said on Friday.
The way Stebbins sees it, the bill uses performance standards to encourage the home energy markets to work in a way that lowers emissions.
“I think it’s critical if we’re actually serious about helping folks be able to heat their homes,” she said.
The bill still has its detractors, some of whom say the opposition to it this time might be more experienced.
“Now that we’ve had a chance to have experience with the bill, I think there’s going to be a lot more work done trying to document what this is going to cost people and what it’s going to mean for the individual Vermonter,” said Sen. Randy Brock, R-Franklin, on Friday. “I think the more that Vermonters hear and understand what this is going to do to their pocketbooks there may be more comment from the public against this bill. We’ll have to wait and see.”
He said the word “affordable” in the name of the law is a misnomer, as he believes it will increase the cost of heating one’s home.
“In my opinion, it’s not a good deal for Vermont or for Vermonters,” said Brock. “It is a heavy-handed, rather clunky solution.”
The goals of the law might be good, said Brock, but that has to be balanced against the costs, and with inflation being high right now, low-income people already are overburdened.
“My understanding from my conversation with the committee chair is that they are open to listening to what the administration has to say to see if there is some way to come up with a bill that has enough compromise so both sides can accept it,” said Brock. “I think that’s going to be very difficult to have happen.”