Markowitz: 2012 legislative session in review

Editor’s note: This op-ed is by Deb Markowitz, the secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources.

This was a remarkable year in the Legislature for Vermont’s environmental and natural resources. Important work was done throughout the session to protect and enhance Vermont’s environment. This is great news, since Vermont’s environment and natural resources are vital to growing good jobs, enhancing our quality of life and strengthening our economic future.

I want to give a special thanks to Sen. Ginny Lyons and the Senate Natural Resources Committee, Rep. David Deen and the House Fish and Wildlife Committee, and Rep. Tony Klein and the House Energy and Natural Resources Committee. They should feel proud of all they accomplished for Vermont this past year.

These are some highlights:

Flood Resiliency: A top priority of the administration, coming from our experiences with Tropical Storm Irene, was to pass legislation to enhance ANR’s ability to respond to future flood emergencies, and to help Vermont’s communities become more resilient to flooding. The River and Lakes Management Bill (S.202) accomplished this goal. This broad bill covers many aspects of river corridor and floodplain management and protection, and has important provisions relating to emergency response and water quality protection. The principle behind this bill is that by reconnecting our rivers to our floodplains, and by encouraging revegetation of our stream banks and lakeshores, we will both reduce the risk of loss from flooding and improve water quality.

Recycling: Today, Vermonters recycle 36 percent of the waste stream, but half of the other 64 percent is recyclable, and yet ends up in our landfills which are nearing capacity. This was one of the reasons the House unanimously passed, and the senate nearly unanimously passed H.485, the Universal Recycling bill. This new law advances Vermont into the next generation of solid waste and materials management and ensures that Vermonters have good options for managing their recyclables and organic residuals (the stuff we can compost). Over the next eight years we will be phasing in mandatory recycling of all recyclable materials, including organics; and our solid waste haulers and facilities (who, incidentally, largely testified in support of this bill) will be required to offer collection services for those materials.

The Working Landscape: Vermont’s future prosperity is tied directly to how we manage our natural resources. That is why it was so important that the Legislature and the administration collaborated to invest in the future of our green innovation economy. The Working Landscape Bill (H.496) provides an initial investment of a million dollars to jump start farm and forestry projects. The Working Lands fund will be administered by a board who will focus on three key areas:

• Grants and loans to land-based and value-added businesses that are new or want to grow;
• Wrap-around services to working lands enterprise including technical assistance, business planning, financial packaging, and other services required by companies ready to transition to the next stage of growth; and
• Needed infrastructure for creative diversification projects, value-added manufacturing, processing, storage, distribution, and collaborative ventures.

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It is largely agreed that this is the most important economic development bill of the session, and if we can keep this fund alive it will do much to protect, preserve and enhance Vermont’s natural resources well into the future.

In a separate bill the Legislature makes it easier for Vermonters to build renewable energy projects for their homes and businesses by streamlining the regulatory process and by requiring utilities to provide net metering based on the standard rate charged to the majority of its residential customers.

Renewable Energy: Last fall Vermont adopted a new comprehensive energy plan that sets a goal for Vermont of meeting 90 percent of our energy needs from renewable sources by 2050. The Energy Bill (S.214) is an important first step toward achieving this goal. This large, wide-ranging bill will support and expand renewable energy development in Vermont. It expands Vermont’s community-scale renewable energy “standard offer” program that guarantees renewable energy developers a standard offer pricing for renewables. This will, in the long run, create consistency in the market and drive down the costs. The bill also creates incentives for developers to locate projects in smart places — areas that will prevent the need for new transmission and distribution upgrades.

The bill also requires ANR to look at greenhouse gas impacts and use a carbon accounting protocol to be developed in the upcoming year. It clarifies ANR’s role in assessing efficient use of natural resources when considering electricity generating biomass energy projects, and provides for harvesting and procurement practices that support forest health. In a separate bill the Legislature makes it easier for Vermonters to build renewable energy projects for their homes and businesses by streamlining the regulatory process and by requiring utilities to provide net metering based on the standard rate charged to the majority of its residential customers.

A Ban on Fracking: Vermonters have been watching with increasing concern the use of hydraulic fracturing (“hydrofracking”) to recover natural gas or oil in our neighboring state of New York, and in other states like Pennsylvania and Texas. Fracking involves injecting a massive volume of water, sand, and chemicals underground at high pressure to break up rock formations, allowing oil or gas to flow up the well. This causes a real risk to both surface and ground water. Although Vermont does not have the kind of geology that makes us a good candidate for natural gas recovery using hydraulic fracking, Vermont is leading the nation by being the first state to institute a ban on hydrofracking.

Wildlife Violators Compact: Vermont joined most all other states by entering into a reciprocal wildlife violators compact (through H.53) that ensures violators of wildlife regulations in other states cannot receive a license to hunt here in Vermont.

Stablizing ANR’s Budget: Last, but perhaps most importantly, the Legislature took great strides to stabilize ANR’s budget after years of punishing cuts. (Over the past five years or so we have lost nearly 20 percent of our staff.) Our budgets were essentially level funded, with $1.4 million of general funds added to the Fish & Wildlife Department’s budget to offset a reduction in license revenue. Two positions and general funds were added to the Department of Environmental Conservation to support additional river management staff. The DEC fee bill will raise enough funds to help buffer expected losses in federal funds and to create a more balanced and stable financial foundation for DEC. The Fish & Wildlife fee bill included modest increases for hunting and fishing licenses in 2013 and 2014, a new separate bear tag fee, the creation of two new funds for threatened and endangered species permit fees and mitigation funds, and a host of technical corrections to licensing statutes.

Thank you to all who participated in the legislative process this year. One of the true gifts of living in Vermont is how accessible our decision makers are, and how each one of us can make a difference.


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