The Vermont House on Thursday approved legislation that would legally mandate the state to meet strict carbon emissions reduction targets in the coming years, and open it up to lawsuits if it fails to do so.
The legislation, H.688, known as the “Global Warming Solutions Act,” which the House gave preliminary approval in a 105-37 vote, is the result of a push from Democrats seeking to take decisive action on climate change this year.
Under the legislation, the state would be required to come up with a plan to reduce greenhouse gas pollution to 26% below 2005 levels by 2025. Emissions would need to be 40% below 1990 levels by 2030 and 80% below by 2050.
“We’re long overdue on pressing forward on this issue,” said Rep. Tim Briglin, D-Thetford, the chair of the House Energy and Technology Committee.
Thursday’s vote shows the bill has more than enough support in the House to survive a veto from Gov. Phil Scott, who has been critical of the legislation.
Vermont has failed to meet previous carbon emissions goals. Under the legislation passed Thursday, missing the new targets could result in the state being sued, and directed by a court to take further action.
Supporters of the bill say opening the state up to legal action, and allowing the public to hold the government accountable for meeting the emissions requirements, is essential to ensuring the state follows through on efforts to address climate change.
“The Global Warming Solutions Act approved today ensures we are holding the state accountable for developing and achieving greenhouse gas reduction goals that address the severity and urgency of the climate crisis,” House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, said Thursday.
In the last 10 years or so, other states including Connecticut, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Maine have enacted similar legislation requiring that they cut emissions in the coming decades.
Some Republicans, including the governor, argue the bill could lead to costly legal battles and undermine the state’s efforts to address climate change.
But Briglin said the state could not be sued for damages. It could only be court-ordered to improve efforts to meet the emissions goals.
The legislation does not spell out, or dictate how Vermont would meet its new emissions reductions requirements.
Instead, it would create a climate action panel made up of state government officials and citizen experts, to come up with a pollution reduction plan by Dec. 1, 2021. Included in the plan would be guidance for the Agency of Natural Resources to adopt rules to regulate greenhouse gas pollutants by the following year.
During Thursday’s vote, Republicans sought to push back the date when the state could be sued for not meeting emissions goals. Rep. Robert Bancroft, R-Westford, proposed an amendment that would have removed the provision allowing the state to be sued if it doesn’t meet 2025 emissions requirements.
The amendment failed in a voice vote on the House floor, but Republicans said they had concerns that the Agency of Natural Resources would struggle to meet its first emissions reduction deadline, which could set the state up for losses in court.
“We’re not even going to have rules promulgated until, let’s face it, January 2023, to meet a mark two years later that we don’t even know what it is going to be yet?” said House Minority Leader Pattie McCoy, R-Poultney.
“And then you’re going to allow people to sue you based on something that you just found out about two years ago?”
Last week, the Scott administration proposed delaying the possibility of lawsuits until 2050.
“By the time we sort of get through the planning process and the rulemaking process, we’re literally within probably two years, if not less, from that first deadline,” Julie Moore, the natural resources secretary, told lawmakers last week. “And so our ability to demonstrate those sorts of results in that timeframe, I think, is going to be extremely limited.”
Republicans also criticized the bill for giving too much authority to the executive branch when it comes to developing the plan to reduce emissions.
Rep. Anne Donahue, R-Northfield, proposed an amendment that would have required the Legislature to approve the plan before it is adopted by the Agency of Natural Resources. The amendment failed, and Democrats argued that lawmakers will still have oversight over the plan.
Briglin said the climate action panel will be required to present its work to lawmakers, and the Legislature would need to approve new spending and revenue policies, if they are part of the strategy to cut emissions. If the Legislature doesn’t like the approach the executive branch is taking, it could always pass a new law.
Donahue still voted for the measure, hoping that aspects of the legislation she didn’t agree with could be fixed in the Senate.
“This effort is too important to fail to move it to its next stages,” she said.
The legislation is expected to pass on a second vote in the House on Friday.
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