by Rob Roper
It is no secret that “social justice” and “equity” are the watchwords of today’s progressive politics. But are they more than words? Not according to several witnesses to the Clean Heat Standard led by Judy Dow, Executive Director of Gedakina, a member of the Abenaki tribe, and a member of the Climate Council’s Agricultural and Ecosystems subcommittee and the Biomass Taskforce.
The Global Warming Solutions Act, the Climate Action Plan put forward by the Vermont Climate Council, and now the Clean Heat Standard bill, S.5, are all swathed in the favored jargon of the “woke.” In fact, the Just Transitions subcommittee of the Climate Council came up with a thirteen page treatise outlining how racial and economic justice should be handled by lawmakers when crafting policy.
The “Guiding Principles for a Just Transition” demand, among other things, “All Vermonters are informed and able to participate throughout decision-making and drafting of Recommendations, as well as future administration and oversight…. Impacted communities must be recognized and their voices prioritized in conversations surrounding equity, climate change, and the effects of specific Recommendations…. Transition planning must involve innovative and wide community engagement that prioritizes various stakeholders and community-based groups to assess Recommendations at local, state and/or regional levels…. Recommendations must be clear and understandable to all Vermonters, with plain language that is easy to understand. Goals must be clearly identified…. [And] Potential impacts, benefits, and burdens of recommended climate actions are identified and shared publicly.”
As the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee led by Senator Chris Bray (D-Addison) ends testimony of their Clean Heat Bill and begins the write-up process we should ask, have they met this standard? No. Not even close. Not only have the senators not met these criteria, Bray and company have actively avoided them.
As a result of the senators’ intentional obfuscation of the details of the Clean Heat Standard, no Vermonter from a marginalized community or any other community has been “informed or able to participate” in the process in a meaningful way. The recommendations being put forward in S.5 are anything but “clear and understandable to all Vermonters, with plain language that is easy to understand.” E.g., What exactly is a clean heat credit, the central feature of this program?
As for the last point, “Potential impacts, benefits, and burdens of recommended climate actions are identified and shared publicly,” the committee has failed miserably — and purposefully. We have no idea what this program will cost, how it will work, what it will take to operate, or what impact it will have on people’s lives and livelihoods. Attempts to probe these questions are met with smoke screens, stonewalling, and even intimidating outbursts.
Dow specifically called out the senators for manipulating their witness testimony to bolster a single narrative rather than listening and learning from a variety of perspectives. “Your pattern is to listen to folks from various communities, organizations that work with technology and fuels and have Mr. [Jared] Duval [of the Energy Action Network come in to] explain why everything they said was not true or inaccurate. I’m telling you there is danger in this ‘single story.’”
“Using words like the ‘price will come down’, or ‘it’s getting cheaper’ is not equity,” chided Dow, “it’s wishful thinking…. I ‘m asking you to do what you are supposed to do….If the bill has negative impacts on underrepresented groups, you must tell us how these impacts will be mitigated.” S.5 does not do this.
Of greatest concern to Dow is the impact of including biomass for electricity generation as a “green” energy source under the Clean Heat Standard generally, and specifically the impact the McNeil biomass plant in Burlington has on its surrounding community.
According to Dow, “The approximate 4500 folks living within a one-mile circle of McNeil Generating Plant suffer. These are low income people, many are BIPOC that work 3 and 4 jobs, to provide a roof over their heads, mostly living in section 8 housing. Food is hard to come by for these people. They can’t imagine having money for a car or even an electric car, solar panel, heat pumps or any of the other new technologies that are being promoted when they don’t know where their next meal is coming from, relying sometimes on the free and reduced meals at school only. I ask you: Where is the equity here? Who is going to pick them up, and help them through this crisis? It certainly is not S.5….”
Beyond the financial impact, Dow cited the negative health impacts on this low-income community with a large BIPOC population. “Why then,” asks Dow, “does S.5 encourage McNeil to expand to produce heat? How does the community around McNeil differ from the averages in Vermont in terms of race, income, and ethnicity, and how will our health be disproportionately impacted by S5?…. The answer is simply to phase out biomass burning, as both the Ag and Eco systems committee and biomass task force have recommended.”
Dow is not the only one with concerns about including biomass as renewable energy source. The Sierra Club is opposed to this aspect of the bill as well. Steve Crowley of the Vermont chapter of the Sierra Club testified that the biomass inclusion in the bill is a big reason that the organization cannot support S.5, again citing reasons of both science (burning wood is not renewable and it contributes to putting CO2 into the atmosphere) and social justice.
Crowley went further to describe just how regressive the “credit” system will be. “When somebody’s in a situation where their energy burden is five times what it is for a more wealthy person, there are ethical question for me about how far you want to go with ‘sticks’ [as opposed to carrots]. They may not have the opportunity – there may be things that prevent them from making that switch [from penalized fossil heat to subsidized clean heat]. They may just be at the end of a two or three year waiting list to get a project…. I just think we need to protect the lower income people in our state.” S.5 doesn’t say how a Clean Heat Standard can do this.
So why are the concerns of Vermont’s BIPOC community and the impacts of low income Vermonters – not to mention the silenced subcommittees of the Climate Council whose job it is to come up with “the plan” — being swept aside and under the rug in regard to the debate over biofuels?
Because the Speaker of the House (D-Chittenden), the Senate President Pro Tem, Philip Baruth (D-Chittenden), and the 40 or so Representatives and Senators from Burlington, its surrounding communities, and all their constituents depend on the McNeil biomass plant for their electricity security, and its status as ‘renewable’ keeps their bills lower than they otherwise would be.
In fact, the city of Burlington is moving forward with plans for a $40 million project to expand McNeil – certainly not phase it out and shut it down – to provide power to UVM Medical Center. One of the largest employers in the state has a powerful lobby. As do other influential voices in the state house like Burlington Electric and Green Mountain Power, who are dependent upon McNeil being classified as renewable in order to meet their renewable energy quotas under law, and to profit from the proposed renewable energy “credit” system that would be created by the Clean Heat Standard.
So, social justice, equity, and income sensitivities may sound nice, and make for good preambles and lofty floor speeches, but when these ideals come into conflict with political patronage and rent-seeking from influential players they’re quickly dismissed and their sincere advocates stifled. Our politicians hope you don’t care enough to pull back the window dressing to get a view inside the smoke-filled room.
Rob Roper is a freelance writer with over twenty years experience in Vermont politics and policy.He publishes Behind The Lines on Substack. He will be on The Morning Drive, WVMT, 96.3FM/AM620 , Monday morning, February 12, from 7:30 to 8:30 am. Tune in if you can!