Roper: Just Kill the Unaffordable Heating Act

by Rob Roper

The Senate Appropriations Committee passed out the UnAffordable Heat Act (S.5) yesterday, Feb 28, 2023, by the slimmest of margins, 4-3. It will now go to the full Senate for a vote most likely on Thursday.

The 4-3 squeaker came despite major changes to the bill that would require first a study to determine if a Clean Heat Standard is even feasible, followed by a proposal from the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) outlining how the program would work and what it would cost (due in January 2025), and then require the legislature to vote again on a separate bill, subject to gubernatorial veto, to put the Clean Heat Standard fully into effect.

This is a major retreat by supporters of the Clean Heat Standard, especially Natural Resources & Energy Committee chair, Chris Bray (D-Addison) who has been dismissive, even contemptuous, of the idea that rules created by the PUC should ever be voted on by legislators. Nevertheless, even with these changes, Senators Dick Sears (D-Bennington) and Bobby Starr (D-Orleans) joined the lone Republican on the committee, Richard Westman (R-Lamoille) in voting no.

Why the retreat, dare we call it a rout? (Think Custer at Little Big Horn.) The public/voter backlash opposing what is essentially a Rube Goldberg carbon tax on home heating fuel, to steal Senator Dick McCormack’s description of the bill, has been massive. Legislators reported receiving multiple thousands of emails and phone calls protesting the attempt to purposefully increase the already high cost heating homes with fossil fuels – something an overwhelming majority of Vermonters do and is rather important in a state where winter temperatures are typically below freezing. At its heart this is a cruel and unusual piece of legislation, and the lawmakers pushing it for once got found out in time.

And why were the three no votes still skeptical of the bill even as re-written? As some good questions from Senator Sears revealed, although the amended bill requires a check-back and a separate vote regarding whatever rules the PUC comes up with to govern a “carbon credit” system, S.5 still establishes the unwanted credit system upon its passage, regardless of any future vote. In addition, S.5 — not the check-back vote —sets the requirement of the credit system it establishes as having to meet the greenhouse gas reductions mandates called for in the Global Warming Solutions Act regardless of whether the future study finds those goals feasible or not.

When Senator Sears specifically asked Senator Jane Kitchel (D-Caledonia), chair of the committee and sponsor of the study/check-back amendment, if the credit system would still be baked into Vermont law regardless of new future actions required by S.5, she confessed she didn’t really know.

Sears asked, “If the study finds [the credit system] is not workable, would it be thrown out or still be part [of Vermont law per S.5]?… I can certainly support the amendments that have been proposed here, but whether I can support the bill or not—”

Kitchel admitted that S.5 still envisions a carbon credit system for Vermont and that she sees the amendment as a way to “move forward,” only in a more informed way. She also said her intent with the amendment was that a credit system would not move forward if it was found to be not feasible, but she admitted, “We need to be very clear on it.” And, “I need to have confirmation” that that’s what the language actually achieves. It doesn’t.

Even without that clarity or confirmation, she and three committee members, Senators Philip Baruth (D-Chittenden), Andy Perchlik (D/P-Washington) and Ginny Lyons (D-Chittenden) voted to advance the bill…. Along with its $1.75 million price tag.

Just kill the bill!

With due respect to Senator Kitchel, a feasibility study is a waste of time and money. The people have spoken. They don’t want a carbon tax on home heating fuel. And we don’t need to spend $1.75 million ($250,000 of which is specifically allocated for the study, and the rest for bureaucratic support of the CHS) to find out that this whole scheme is unrealistic and unaffordable. It’s not.

We know for a fact that, based on the Energy Action Network and the Climate Council’s own data, that there are about 700 trained workers in the state able to do the work of installing heat pumps, weatherizing homes, etc, and 5000 are necessary by 2025 to meet the goals in S.5. Those 4300 workers aren’t going to materialize. Ergo, the plan is not feasible. End of story.

Even if those workers did exist, the cost of weatherizing 90,000 homes and installing over 120,000 heat pumps by 2030 – which together are only part of the work that must be done – is in excess of $2 billion by the most conservative estimates. We know for a fact that federal subsidies for these types of activities don’t approach that amount and they dry up in 2026. After that, there is no revenue source to pay for this – unless you plan to implement the same $0.70 to $4.00 “carbon credit” fee per gallon of fossil heating fuel that has the politicians running for their political lives today. So, again, neither economically nor politically feasible. End of story.

Senator Sears said at one point that this whole experience reminded him of Peter Shumlin’s attempt to enact a single payer healthcare system in Vermont. I share his sense of déjà vu.

Between 2011 and 2014 Vermonters spent multiple millions of dollars to study of how the program would work and what it would cost, only to conclude what critics had been saying all along: that it was unworkable and unaffordable. Shumlin ended up pulling the plug on the whole thing.

At the beginning of the single payer debate, my friend Wendy Wilton, who at the time was Treasurer of Rutland City, sat down at her kitchen table and – for free and in one weekend — crunched the numbers on Shumlincare and came up with a price tag that turned out to be almost exactly the same as what the multi-million dollar team of “experts” took three years to come up with.  

Today, Agency of Natural Resources Secretary Julie Moore provided a similar analysis of S.5, and Myers Mermel of the Ethan Allen Institute (the guy who has my old job) did an even more detailed and in-depth analysis that just shreds any argument that a clean heat carbon credit program like the one proposed in S.5 is possible or desirable. (See Mermel’s excellent report HERE.)

So, dear public servants, just kill the bill. Listen to your constituents and spend the $1.7 million earmarked for S.5 on something more worthwhile. That shouldn’t be hard to find.

Rob Roper is a freelance writer who has been involved with Vermont politics and policy for over 20 years. This article reprinted with permission from Behind the Lines: Rob Roper on Vermont Politics,

Categories: Commentary

5 replies »

  1. Thank you Rob, Guy, and all the others who are keeping us informed on this issue.

  2. “Senator Sears said at one point that this whole experience reminded him of Peter Shumlin’s attempt to enact a single payer healthcare system in Vermont.”

    Funny that. What could possibly make the Senator think this ?

    Maybe because that is exactly what is happening with this boondoggle bill.

  3. Come on legislators, you know he’s right. Just throw this roadkill over the side. Lets encourage each other to continue thinking about this whole carbon cycle thing and look for personal life style actions we can take. Let this be a conscientious citizen issue not another government kerfuffle.

  4. Personally i feel that its just not right for a few, mostly one party, to make up extreme and costly bills to force on the population. You folks ought to have more faith in your neighbors. You are wasting tax dollars to figure out how to destroy the lives of so many. Why dont you spend money teaching people how in small ways they can help make changes… Not unlike the stop littering campaigns of the 60’s. America became a cleaner more thoughtful place. This should actually be done Life is already hard enough…try figuring out ways to make it better. Id also like to add that your meetings are very hard to follow..the explanations are very far from clear and concise.

  5. I am more than in favor of environmental protection and all that entails. I have tried to be informed by all sides of this argument and can only conclude that though well intended, the state is running before learning how to walk on this issue. EVs and much of the other technology related to electrification is still in the early stages. There are many bugs to be worked out before this solution is truly workable. As with everything, the actual costs are hard to really nail down. I do know this and would bet on it…once charging of EVs becomes widespread the cost will go up to be the equivalent of gas powered vehicles

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