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The Opportunity of a Clean Heat Standard: Cost Savings, Cost Certainty and Carbon-Reductions

This is a joint op-ed from Vermont Natural Resources Council, Vermont Conservation Voters, Vermont Public Interest Research Group, and Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility.

On the same day that Russia invaded Ukraine, the Vermont House Energy and Technology Committee voted to advance this year’s most consequential legislation to address climate change and move us off fossil fuels: The Clean Heat Standard (H.715). 

The implications of Russia’s unprovoked attack are hitting home – especially for Vermonters with lower incomes already struggling to make ends meet before the cost of oil and gas skyrocketed. The past weeks have highlighted the vulnerability of Vermonters’ reliance on fossil fuels. Vermont imports every drop of oil and gas we use to heat our homes and get where we need to go – spending nearly $2 billion annually just in our little state. Fossil fuels are part of a global market whose costs are influenced by worldwide supply, demand, and unpredictable events.  As we’re seeing now, prices can increase overnight due to factors far outside of our control, including the whims of autocrats. 

As Governor Scott said at a recent press conference when asked about President Biden’s move to ban Russian oil imports, “This really does emphasize our need to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels… so we don’t have to rely on the Russias of the world or the Middle East or any other country for that matter. We should be able to stand on our own two feet.”  

The Clean Heat Standard is one important tool to begin to unshackle Vermonters from the high price and volatility of fossil fuels, and instead keep us warm with more local, clean, efficient, and affordable energy supplies.

After weeks of robust testimony and a clear recommendation from the Vermont Climate Council, the Clean Heat Standard will soon head to the full House for a vote. This is exciting news, because the Clean Heat Standard is the most significant piece of climate legislation under consideration in the Vermont Legislature this year. The bill will create more price stability for Vermonters and more certainty for fuel providers – who will have clear, annual obligations to plan for and meet. This policy offers opportunities for business and workforce transformation. If executed well, it could be one of the most transformative climate and clean energy policies the state has ever enacted. As the costs and consequences of incremental and delayed action on the climate crisis come home to roost, there is no more time to wait or waste.

The Clean Heat Standard would begin to ratchet down the pollution from Vermont’s thermal sector – the heating of our homes and buildings – which accounts for 34% of the state’s total greenhouse gas emissions. The policy would make annual pollution-cutting progress by requiring wholesalers and some retailers to fund clean heat and energy programs for their customers. The program is not prescriptive. It enables flexibility for fuel providers. And, critically, it requires a substantial portion of the benefits of the Clean Heat Standard to accrue to low and moderate income earners, accelerating support to help already-overburdened Vermonters cut their energy costs.

The Clean Heat Standard is the single largest pollution-reduction plank of the Climate Action Plan, adopted in December 2021.The Vermont Climate Council – whose charge was to develop a plan to meet our legally-required pollution reduction targets – recognized the need for the Clean Heat Standard to reduce emissions, get more homes and buildings weatherized and help Vermonters stay warm with cleaner heating technologies. 

As the bill moves through the Legislature, we are pressing for the cleanest, most cost-effective, climate-accountable and equitable policy design. We will measure the success of a Clean Heat Standard on three fundamental principles:

  1. Require fossil fuel companies to cut pollution in the heating sector in line with Vermont’s legal emissions reduction requirements. H.715 requires significant and essential cuts to climate pollution.
  2. Achieve emissions reductions using a transparent, lifecycle approach; taking into account the full emissions created with options like biofuel. A policy that cuts pollution in Vermont while increasing pollution elsewhere just doesn’t work. Nor does a policy work if it claims to cut pollution on paper but still results in more pollution accumulating in our atmosphere.  H.715 requires that pollution reductions are achieved both in Vermont and on a lifecycle basis. 
  3. Center equity and require that a significant portion of clean heat benefits go to Vermonters with low and moderate incomes, and those who have disproportionately borne the high cost of polluting fossil fuels. The bill lays out specific, unambiguous requirements for Vermonters with low and moderate incomes to receive their fair share of the benefits of the Clean Heat Standard.

We will be working to ensure that the core climate and equity components of the bill remain intact – and are further explored and strengthened – as this bill moves through the Legislature. We will also be pushing for complementary policies to ensure our power comes from increasingly local, new, renewable energy sources; and for the state to invest in weatherization for all and the workforce needed to implement and accelerate clean and efficient energy solutions. 

That’s because another sobering backdrop that makes advancing a well-designed Clean Heat Standard and building our clean energy future so critical is the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s most recent analysis. Their February 2022 report could not make it more clear: Each state and nation must act swiftly to cut heat-trapping carbon emissions or “miss a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all.” 

The only way to move Vermonters off the high-pollution, high-cost roller coaster of oil and gas is to invest in more local, efficient, clean, and renewable energy resources. As the Clean Heat Standard bill heads to the floor of the Vermont House of Representatives and through the Legislature, with the assault on Ukraine remaining a stark backdrop, we urge lawmakers to vote in support of this critical initiative.  Vermonters – and our planet – deserve the freedom that comes with clean heat. 

Johanna Miller, Vermont Natural Resources Council
Ben Edgerly Walsh, Vermont Public Interest Research Group
Lauren Hierl, Vermont Conservation Voters
Jordan Giaconnia, Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility