By Guy Page
The architect of S.5, the Affordable Heating Act (AHA), tried Thursday, Feb. 23 to set Senate Appropriations at ease about the financial impact of his anti-fossil fuel heat bill on low-income Vermonters.
Chair Jane Kitchel (D-Caledonia) announced that she, and other senators, have received many phone calls from Vermonters very concerned AHA will significantly boost their already high home heating bills. Kitchel appeared to share the concern but also seemed likely willing to be convinced that the financial impact will be gradual and not immediate. But Orleans County Sen. Bobby Starr remained skeptical.
Agency of Natural Resources Secretary Julie Moore said AHA, which assesses a surcharge on fuel dealers, will add 70 cents per gallon to heating oil costs. The Ethan Allen Institute estimates the cost at $4/gallon, while renewable power industry representatives on the Vermont Climate Council say Moore’s estimate is too high.
Neither Senate Natural Resources and Energy Chair Chris Bray nor other senators on his committee could provide specific cost estimates.
Nevertheless, to hear Bray tell it, these Vermonters worrying about AHA are just plain misinformed. They’ve been playing the old game of Telephone. They just don’t understand the AHA will save them money. Anything you hear to the contrary is just ‘malarkey.’
“I don’t know if you want to attribute it to the telephone game, or something, but misinformation is getting passed along and I think that misinformation – my mother would have called malarkey – is worrying a lot of people.
“So the first thing is that customer participation is voluntary. No customers required to do anything – not switch fuels, not install heat pumps, nothing. People have had the impression that they must do things,” Bray continued. “As a matter of fact, almost immediately, too there are savings available for those who do participate….almost two billion dollars through 2050. But no one – just like Efficiency Vermont – is required to participate in the programs they offer there. If you burn oil today, you will be able to burn oil tomorrow and all the way through 2050.”
Chairman Jane Kitchel interrupted Bray: “Some of the calls that we’re getting are from senior citizens, and people who are very low income, or you know, not wealthy. They are becoming very very fearful in terms of what is going to happen to them immediately. Immediately. I don’t know at that point how we dispel that even under the best of circumstances.”
“It’s unfortunate that we’ve created so much anxiety on the part of people who really are very vulnerable. ‘I can’t even afford a computer,”’one person told me. ‘How am I going to do all this?’”
Bray said the bill does contain affordability information. “ “It’s just disappointing to have people pronounce it unaffordable before we’ve ever even got that data. it feels like – “
Maybe we should change the title,” Kitchel interrupted again. Some in the room chuckled – perhaps nervously.
“I’m serious,” Kitchel said. “Because affordability is going to be so contentious and people will have different definitions of what is Affordable or affordable…You must love that title, but I don’t love it at all, to be honest.”
Then Sen. Starr – easily the most vocally opposed senator in the room – took issue with a supposed exemption on non-imported oil. “Well we do not have any oil wells in Vermont, so every drop of oil has to be imported to here. So now the very first statement in that one is kind of misleading…Say it like it is, don’t swap lies, because it doesn’t make for clear statements. Say oil is going to have a surcharge on it, if it’s transported into the state.”
When Bray said the large fuel importers, not the small retail fuel dealers, will be charged, Starr (who operated a milk trucking business) said of course the charge will trickle down to the small dealers.
In response to Bray’s concern that Vermonters now send thermal heating money to out-of-state dealers, Starr said the same goes for electricity – now. He recalled the 2011 Senate refusal to relicense Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant in Vernon, a generator of large amounts of low-cost, carbon-free electricity.
“You’re talking about how much money is exported out of Vermont, because people are buying oil and gas or whatever,” Starr said. “If we all switch to electric, where do you think that money is going to go? We have the [Burlington woodchip-fueled] McNeil generating plant. In Vermont Yankee we had four cent [per kilowatt-hour] power. That’s history. Gone. We shut it down.”
After Bray said “they pulled the plug on their own,” Starr said “where do you think our electric money goes? Most of that gets exported out of here.”