by Rob Roper On the morning of April 15, after weeks of discussion and just hours before they voted 4-1 to advance legislation that would saddle Vermonters with a radical, economy transforming “clean heat standard” for home heating fuels, senators on the Natural Resources & Energy Committee asked a remarkable question: “What do you get to do with a [clean heat] credit when you buy them?” They did not know. They could not really explain.
This is pretty shocking considering the whole proposal for a clean heat standard is based on the concept creating an obligation for fossil fuel dealers to buy clean heat credits in order to sell fossil-based heating fuels to their customers. It’s kind of an important detail to clearly understand before making an informed decision about whether or not the bill is a good idea.
Senator Mark MacDonald (D-Orange) kicked off a roughly 30 minute discussion trying to get to the bottom of exactly what the committee was voting on with the somewhat bizarre statement, “Before I kill someone to get their clean heat credits, I want to know what the charge is going to be. Embezzlement, scam, securities fraud?” (20:00-52:00)
Committee Chair Chris Bray (D-Addison) tried – and failed – to explain how the credit system might work, leaving MacDonald even more confused, “Where does the money come from?.... I don’t understand it so I can’t explain it…. I don’t understand anything.”
Bray tried again, pointing out that sellers of fossil heating fuels would be obligated to purchase “clean heat credits” in order to sell their products, and that the cost of these credits would likely be passed along to consumers. His defense of a general ignorance about how all this would work in practice highlights a major problem with this bill:
“No one knows this for sure, because they [the Public Utilities Commission (PUC)] haven’t worked out the system.” These senators are about to sign off on and give force of law to a “plan” that doesn’t yet exist, and therefore can’t be understood.
As MacDonald summed up, “They (the PUC) in theory understand what we are not able to explain. We are asking them to design the thing that will work. But we can’t explain what we are asking them to design."
One critical point did register with MacDonald, however. “So, when John McClaughry says we’ve got a fuel tax coming – a carbon tax – I think John is correct. That’s what we’re doing. Isn’t that what we’re doing?”
Bray agreed. “That’s right. In essence you’re building into the price of the fuel the cost to help reduce the emissions.”
MacDonald laid out the gist, “By paying this thing to pollute -- to burn this fossil fuel which is doing our atmosphere and our future damage, you’re going to pay extra…. And that extra money is going to be used to hire people who are interested in reducing the amount they use.”
Bray again agreed, “That’s a yes.” He also noted, “We don’t know what the cost impacts will be.”
So, let this sink in…. Our legislators are voting to make a law that will radically transform not just our economy but our entire way of life, not really knowing what it is they’re voting for. They don’t know how it works, they don’t know what it will do, they don’t know what it will cost, they can’t explain it to their colleagues or their constituents. But four out of five of them voted for it anyway. (So did 96 out of 150 House members.)
Governor Scott is demanding the Clean Heat Standard bill contain a “check back” provision wherein after the PUC does design the plan and legislators do have enough information to understand how it will work and what it will cost, legislators would then have to affirmatively vote to put the Clean Heat Standard into law.
This is just common sense. But common sense is something a majority of our elected leaders completely lack. They rejected the idea of a “check back” and doubled down on their “ignorance is bliss” approach.
This is why Vermont is a hot mess of unaffordability and regulatory quagmires. The people we’ve elected to run the state do not know what they are doing, admit that they do not know what they are doing, do it anyway, and don’t care what it costs or how it disrupts the lives of the people they ostensibly serve.
If as a result of this entirely negligent approach to governance you can’t afford to heat your home future winters, Senator MacDonald has advice for you: “Get a blanket for Christ’s sake!” Or to paraphrase Marie Antoinette, “Go eat cake.”
Rob Roper is on the Board of Directors of the Ethan Allen Institute.