Scott looks to deepen relationship with Quebec

Phil Scott, Quebec
Gov. Phil Scott speaks at an energy conference in Quebec on Thursday. Photo by Mark Johnson/VTDigger

QUEBEC CITY — In a keynote address at a renewable energy conference here Thursday, Gov. Phil Scott pushed for more business between the Canadian province and Vermont.

Scott said he wanted to deepen the relationship and stressed the “common values and common interests” between Vermont and Quebec. The governor said both sides could prosper further if more Canadian companies set up U.S. headquarters in Vermont. He also hoped for more opportunities for Vermont companies to sell products in Quebec.

Quebec is Vermont’s largest trading partner; the state sells $5 billion worth of goods a year to the province.

He said the two were separated by a border but noted their shared heritage based on agriculture and forestry.

Scott — on a two-day, get-to-know-you trade trip to the province — told the conference audience he is confident the North American Free Trade Agreement would remain largely unchanged and that business between the two countries would be not be negatively affected.

Talk by President Donald Trump of “tweaking” the Canadian portions of NAFTA was on the front page Thursday of the country’s largest English language newspaper, The Globe and Mail.

Scott said the uncertainty was clearly a concern.

“It’s almost like the elephant in the room: what’s going to happen in Washington,” Scott said.

But he said a large number of states depend on Canada as a place to sell goods. Changes to the trade agreement would hurt trade and draw a backlash, he said. The audience applauded moments later when Scott mentioned that Vermont welcomed refugees.

The conference was hosted by two Quebec Chambers of Commerce and the Quebec Association for the Production of Renewable Energy. The association is the the province’s equivalent of Renewable Energy Vermont, which advocates for energy production from sources other than fossil fuels and nuclear power. Scott gave the Vermont organization a plug when he invited his hosts and the audience to attend REV’s fall annual event.

The governor reiterated to the 200 conferees one of his primary points during his Wednesday meeting with Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard: that the province could help Vermont achieve its goal of 90 percent renewable energy by 2050 — a goal Scott recommitted to during the trip — with additional purchases of Hydro-Quebec power.

Quebec also has set an ambitious goal for energy use and greenhouse gas reduction, seeking by 2030 to “decarbonize” the province and reduce GHG emissions 37 percent below 1990 levels. (Scott said during a break he believes climate change is driven by human activity, likening the planet to a closed garage where car fumes unsafely build up.)

In his speech, Scott also emphasized the mutual benefit of a deal that allows for construction of a large-scale transmission line that will run under Lake Champlain and allow the Canadians to potentially sell electricity in New York City. Vermont will receive $300 million over 40 years in return for allowing the line. That money will be used to pay for part of the lake phosphorus-reduction cleanup plan.

Scott delighted the crowd when he rattled off the names of towns in Quebec where he raced snowmobiles and later stock cars. His speech drew laughs and applause when he began with a “bonjour” from Vermont in rudimentary French.

“That’s about it,” he said with a laugh before delivering his 15-minute speech in English.

Scott ended his talk with a joke about “learning” from Couillard at dinner on Wednesday the two regions shared a common agricultural heritage: the production of maple syrup.

“Who knew?” Scott said.

The conference hosts mentioned several times how honored they were that Scott made Quebec his first official business trip outside the country since he took office last month. They spoke of the “special relationship” between Vermont and Quebec.

In an interview afterward, Scott emphasized how face-to-face visits build trust between the province and Vermont. He promised more visits, that “it won’t be a one and done.”

“We need to continue to build and foster this relationship,” Scott said. “Relationships mean things to them. They mean something to us as well.”

“It takes constant attention. It takes a lot of work. It’s like having a good marriage. It’s a lot of work. You can’t take it for granted,” Scott said. “You have to continue to communicate. You have to continue to reach out.”

He added: “You can’t assume it’s a one-way street. It’s not just for the benefit of Vermont. There has to be some giveback too. So we have to look for those opportunities and they have to ask us as well.”

Key staff and cabinet secretaries who joined Scott on the trip sat interspersed throughout the conference audience. Scott said afterward he believed the relationship between Quebec and Vermont would benefit having the counterparts meet and not depending on just the leaders to make the connections. He said relations were strong during Gov. Peter Shumlin’s tenure but appeared to largely focus on the governor.

Tom Torti, the president of the Lake Champlain Chamber of Commerce, sat across from Scott at the center table for dignitaries. He noted the benefit Canadian companies have locating in Vermont when they want to expand into U.S.markets because of the short distance compared to other New England states and New York.

“These are not decisions that get made overnight. They take two, three, four years for them to feel comfortable, to do the business plan and see that it makes sense,” Torti said, adding “being close to home helps” give Vermont an advantage.

Torti said he spoke to seven companies during Scott’s visit — some he’d met with before — who wanted to expand into the United States and know more about Vermont; Scott said he spoke to six companies; he didn’t know if they were the same ones Torti saw because they met with businesses separately.

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