Editorial: Hardball in Vermont; Environmental Fight Turns Nasty
The reputation of Vermont as the home of genteel politics took a hit recently when prominent environmentalist and businessman Jeff Wolfe delivered an unmistakable message to state Sen. John Campbell of Hartford that the game being played is hardball — or maybe moneyball.
In a letter posted on Facebook earlier this month, Wolfe, co-founder and board chairman of White River Junction-based groSolar, excoriated Campbell for supporting a pending bill that Wolfe contends would not only spell the end of the renewable energy industry in Vermont, but also negatively affect middle class prosperity, human and environmental health, and recreation. That Wolfe, a Strafford resident, feels strongly about this may be inferred from the fact that he suggested that by supporting S.30, Campbell was playing the dupe of the notoriously conservative Koch brothers, with their “well documented” funding of anti-renewable-energy efforts.
(This news perhaps came as a surprise to Campbell, a moderate Democrat who is the Senate president pro tempore in arguably the most liberal state in the nation.)
The bottom line? “John,” Wolfe wrote, perhaps channeling the Koch brothers himself, “I’ve supported you for a lot of races. But if you support this bill, not only does that support end, but I will help recruit and support opposition to you in the next election, and will put my money where my mouth is.” Thus does the blunt instrument replace the hidden dagger. We suppose that’s progress of a sort.
Anyway, given the tone of the letter, it was a little surprising to learn that what the bill would do is require energy generation projects of 500 kilowatts or more to conform to Act 250 criteria. The practical effect of this would be to give local communities more say, through their town plans, in the permitting process.
So what kind of an environmentalist wouldn’t want development projects subjected to scrutiny under the provisions of Vermont’s venerable land-use law? From what we can tell, certainly not all environmentalists, but rather environmentalists who, for example, want to erect on Vermont ridgelines large wind energy operations — the very type of project that has bitterly divided the state’s environmental community.
Wolfe’s argument is that anything that increases the regulatory burden on renewables will slow and make more expensive their development, thus setting back efforts to combat climate change, and “any bill that does that in Vermont is a bad bill ... .”
An indignant Campbell postponed a scheduled Senate vote on the bill, which he continues to back, because for procedural reasons he would not have been able to vote on it this week. He says he supports “renewable energy, there’s no question ... but if we are going to have to do something to interfere with the iconic nature of our ridgelines, then we need to make sure they are for the public good.”
Indeed we haven’t seen yet a convincing case that large-scale wind energy can play a significant role in reducing carbon emissions in Vermont, which would be the only rational basis for sacrificing a landscape that plays such an important role in the state’s economy and self-identity. And the ability of towns to exert some control over their destiny when it comes to development is not something that should be lightly overridden.
It might make sense for the Senate to wait until a commission formed by the Shumlin administration to study siting of energy projects reports back this spring with its recommendations before taking action on this.
Whatever the merits of the bill, though, this crude attempt to intimidate leaves an ugly scar on the political landscape.