Valley News - NH, Vt. lawmakers prepping energy and environment bills this session

WEST LEBANON — Upper Valley lawmakers are taking the lead on energy and environment issues in the legislative sessions convening in Vermont and New Hampshire this week.

“Quite possibly the most important work that we’re going to do in the coming year, related to energy policy and climate action, will be how we direct those funds to most effectively reduce our dependence on fossil fuel oil and transition to … beneficial electrification and renewable energy,” Rep. Tim Briglin, a Thetford Democrat who chairs the House Committee on Energy and Technology, said Tuesday.

Vermont received over $2 billion in funding from the federal infrastructure bill and has pledged to spend $250 million on climate-change-oriented initiatives. The state also adopted a Climate Action Plan in December, which maps a path to cutting greenhouse gas emissions to “net-zero” by 2050.

The Vermont House Transportation Committee will tackle how to reduce emissions in the transportation sector, which accounts for a full 40% of the rural state’s emissions.

Members of the committee will introduce a “Transportation Innovation Act” on Wednesday or Thursday, said Rep. Becca White, D-Hartford, who serves on the committee. Rep John Bartholomew, D-Hartland, is also sponsoring the bill.

“The bill looks at how do we help people still move towards electric vehicles or hybrid vehicles, but also how do we get people to be able to safely bike, walk or travel in non-car related ways,” White said. “It’s a very wide-ranging set of policy recommendations,” she added.

She listed many new initiatives that may get the state closer to its goals. Pilot programs for “rural Uber” — curb-to-curb public transportation that operates like a taxi — will be up for consideration. The bill would also expand “complete street” requirements that would promote sidewalks and bike paths and further fund downtown development to promote pedestrian main streets.

“We’re in a totally new world when it comes to the amount of funding available for us,” White said.

More funding will let Vermont build on programs it already has. For example, the bill would increase funding for “Mileage Smart,” a program that incentivizes electric and hybrid vehicles for qualifying people. It will also expand funding for multifamily EV charging stations and open the grant program to businesses, municipalities and schools, she said.

The bill is expansive, but it would not meet all of the goals in the Climate Action Plan.

“The Climate Action Plan rested a lot of its weight with meeting our transportation goals on something called the Transportation and Climate Initiative, the TCI,” she said. The regional program would have brought 11 states together to cap transportation emissions and promote investment in cleaner modes of transportation. But after governors in Connecticut and Massachusetts withdrew, others followed and the TCI stalled indefinitely.

Without the TCI, Vermont has neither the standards nor the revenue to meet many of the goals in the Climate Action Plan, White said.

“We need to figure that out on our end,” she said. “And we did not put in a strategy to do that in this bill, but it’s definitely going to be a part of the conversation for the next two years.

The administration of Republican Gov. Phil Scott noted some concerns about the Climate Action Plan’s dependence on the TCI in its response on Dec. 1.

“This turn of events has also been instructive, as it has laid bare the risks associated with relying on plans for reducing transportation (greenhouse gas) emissions that are not within Vermont’s control,” administration officials said last month.

Briglin, the House energy committee chairman, will be looking at ways to reduce emissions and build efficiency in homes and municipal buildings.

“There are over 5,000 municipal buildings in the state of Vermont, and many of them are kind of old and drafty and use a lot of fuel oil,” he said. One bill that will be proposed in the coming weeks would provide resources for municipalities to make those buildings more efficient and transition them from “dirty fossil fuels to cleaner electric heating and renewable energy,” he said.

His committee will also be looking at a “clean heat standard” to shift thermal heating away from fossil fuels. The state would work with the fuel and heating industry to meet annual emissions reduction targets through mechanisms including heat pumps and energy efficiency, he said.

The House Natural Resources Committee will also be considering proposals related to the Climate Action Plan’s recommendations on land use. The plan proposes allowing the owners of forest parcels with “Forever Wild” easements to enroll in the state’s current use program to promote old-growth forests. It also recommends that the state consider a no-net-loss of natural and working lands policy.

The Scott administration criticized both of these recommendations, arguing that changes to the current-use program, which provides tax breaks for forest and farmland, could “have significant implications and consequences for tax policy and revenue that require careful examination.” The letter also raised concerns about how a “no-net-loss” policy would conflict with the need for more housing and renewable energy infrastructure, as well as economic development in rural parts of the state.

With over 230 proposed actions, the Climate Action Plan gives the Legislature a lot to work on. The House and the Senate took a divide-and-conquer approach, with the Senate likely taking the lead on “weatherization at scale” as well as the renewable energy standard, Briglin said.

Meanwhile, in New Hampshire, Rep. Lee Oxenham, D-Plainfield, is sponsoring a wide range of climate and environment-focused legislation. One of her most ambitious proposals is a Climate Action Plan — a “necessity” that would establish a greenhouse gas emissions reduction goal of 80% by 2050, using a 1990 baseline. However, she said that she doubts it will gain ground in Concord, where Republicans control both the House and Senate. She is more optimistic about other bills, including a proposal for a study committee on universal broadband access.

“There’s also a producer responsibility bill about plastic pollution, and I am hopeful that there may be some ability to get action on that,” she said. “You know, we’re inundating our landfill and we’re producing these things that just build up and build up.”

She also said that the Legislature may restore funding for NH Saves, the state’s energy efficiency program. The Public Utilities Commission cut funding for NH Saves late last year, in a decision that supporters said would reduce electricity bills and opponents said would undermine long-term energy efficiency savings. The PUC has been sued over the decision, but Oxenham said a legislative solution is likely in the works.

“Legislators in the Senate and in the House have been talking during this hiatus while the Legislature wasn’t in session, and it seems like there is a possibility of a bill coming forward,” she said.

Rep. Michael Vose, R-Epping, and Sen. David Watters, D-Dover, are sponsoring bills in their respective chambers that may resume funding for NH Saves — and effectively reverse the PUC’s decision.

Other upcoming bills may reduce the renewable energy fund, which is already “seriously depleted” and has a waiting list, Oxenham said.

One bill, if approved by the Senate, would exempt state and local governments from paying the portion of electricity rates that funds the renewable energy fund.

“I think the possibly doable priorities are maintaining the programs that we currently have, which were last in New England in terms of any kind of incentives or funding for the green energy transition,” she said. “It’s so short-sighted. New Hampshire could be at the forefront.”

In the Senate, Dover’s Watters has filed two bills that would promote offshore wind power generation, a type of energy production that Republican Gov. Chris Sununu has voiced support for in the past.

Claire Potter is a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at cpotter@vnews.com or 603-727- 3242.

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