Roughly one year ago, with much fanfare, Gov. Phil Scott created the Vermont Climate Action Commission, whose charge was to produce recommendations for fighting climate change in Vermont. The commission was greeted with a fair bit of skepticism, partly because Scott’s environmental track record is heavy on delay and incrementalism, and partly because he strongly opposes any measures that would add costs to the economy, especially taxes and government-imposed limits on greenhouse gas emissions.
Oh, and did I mention that the 21-member panel was heavy on business and administration figures and included only one environmental advocate? That didn’t seem promising.
Well, the commission completed its work on schedule at the end of July and released its final report, which was lengthy and amorphous. There was no real summary, and there were no key points — just a list of 53 separate, unranked recommendations. Some were highly specific, such as No. 31: “Maintain large forest blocks by implementing the Act 171 Intergenerational Transfer Report recommendations.” Some were perplexingly broad, such as No. 43: “Create an electric regulatory environment that promotes cost-effective innovation.”
For commission chair and Deputy Secretary of Natural Resources Peter Walke, the report’s complexity is simply a reflection of reality. “There is no silver bullet,” he said.
The commission’s final deliberations were heavily influenced by some bad news on greenhouse gas emissions. In late June, the state Department of Environmental Conservation reported that Vermont’s emissions had risen substantially between 2011 and 2015, ending the period at 16 percent above 1990 levels. Vermont has a legally established goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 50 percent of 1990 levels by the year 2028.
The increase added fresh urgency to the commission’s work. “The question was, do we identify recommendations that will get us [to that goal]?” said Jared Duval, commission member and executive director of Energy Action Network, a nonprofit that includes businesses and public and private organizations interested in promoting renewable energy. “We decided we could only do so through means that many members didn’t favor, like an emissions cap.”
At the commission’s July 12 meeting, its sole environmental advocate, Johanna Miller of the Vermont Natural Resources Council, proposed an addition to the final report recommending that an emissions cap be imposed in the year 2021 “unless there is significant progress in GHG reductions over the next three years.”
That would have been a no-go for the governor, and commissioners voted it down, with seven in favor and 11 against. The commission then adopted a watered-down version suggesting “additional wide scale measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions” if Vermont fails to reduce emissions, without mentioning 2021 or any other year.
The rollout of the report did nothing to assuage concerns about Scott’s commitment.
The commission had planned to present its findings to the governor and the public on Tuesday, July 31. But the event was canceled with less than a day’s notice for an almost unbelievable reason: Officials had failed to properly warn the meeting as required by law.
“It was an oversight on my part,” said Walke. He believed that the panel had formally completed its work at its last regular meeting on July 12 and essentially didn’t exist. For the session at the end of July, he explained, “I had assumed we would simply be a group of former commission members coming together to present our report.”
That assumption was unfounded. On Monday morning, officials realized that most of the commissioners planned to attend. That meant it would be a public meeting subject to the legal requirement of at least 24 hours’ public notice.
“Our feeling was that we should do it right and give the public and interest groups a chance to participate,” said Jason Gibbs, the governor’s chief of staff, explaining the decision to cancel and reschedule the rollout.
That may be true. But it was a bad look for the administration. The sudden cancelation seemed like an effort to bury the commission’s report. And the following day at Scott’s weekly press conference, he professed to be unfamiliar with the panel’s conclusions. His lack of preparedness added to the perception that the commission was getting the brush-off.
Gibbs insists that wasn’t the case. The meeting has, in fact, been rescheduled for August 20. But the delay has added to skepticism around Scott’s commitment to fighting climate change.
“The big question is, ‘What is the governor willing to act on?'” Miller said. “I hope he will do something substantial, but I highly doubt it.”