The Vermont Climate Council held its first meeting on Friday morning, introducing its 23 members meeting for the first time and setting the guardrails for its ambitious task and aggressive timetable.
But the chair of the council, Secretary of Administration Susanne Young, dropped a broad hint that the Scott administration might seek a court challenge over what is says is an unconstitutional aspect of the law.
Young said the Scott administration, while fully supporting the council’s work and its goals, still has deep concerns about the way the law was written — concerns it thinks might put the council’s work at risk in a court challenge.
Scott vetoed the Global Warming Solutions Act on September 16, in part because of concerns that an “unelected and unaccountable” climate council, as laid out in the legislation, would constitute an “unconstitutional usurpation of Executive authority by the Legislature.”
Scott had said the executive branch should appoint the council. The legislation split the appointments between the governor’s office, the state Senate and the state House of Representatives.
Young said the administration is concerned that structure, if challenged in court, could lead to the council’s work being “vulnerable to a challenge.”
“We will be working with the Legislature to resolve our remaining concerns about structure,” Young said, while emphasizing that will not affect the administration’s support for “the substantive work the Legislature has tasked us with.”
“We may have no choice but to ask for clarity from the judicial branch,” Young said.
The council has until next December to present a climate plan to the legislature under the terms of the Global Warming Solutions Act, passed into law this fall over Gov. Phil Scott’s veto.
The first meeting was largely organizational, with members introducing themselves to each other and getting a quick education on what will be expected of them as members of a state board.
Members received primers from Vermont Ethics Commission director Larry Novins, and on the state’s open records law from Charity Clark, the chief of staff for the Attorney General’s office.
One by one, meeting virtually, the members introduced themselves to each other and outlined what they hope to accomplish through the council’s activities.
They spoke of how they have come to the council with unique backgrounds and interests in how the state might not only reduce emissions and increase its reliance upon renewable energy, but expand economic opportunity in the process.
Sean Brown, the state commissioner of the Department of Children and Families, spoke of how his department works with economically disadvantaged Vermonters “who struggle to meet their energy burdens” and rely on fossil fuels to keep their families warm while living in older homes.
Thanks to that experience, Brown said, he comes to the council with an understanding of how weatherization programs and heating equipment upgrades can help lower-income residents save money on heat. He looks forward to “making sure low income Vermonters are able to avail themselves of the work of this council.”
Jared Duval, Executive Director or Energy Action Network, and Richard Cowart, Regulatory Assistance Project, both expressed hope their expertise in working on climate solutions can provide a better environment for their home state.
“I believe in the power of a good example,” Cowart said. “Vermont has been a leader in the U.S. and globally in a number of different venues. I really do believe we can come up with solution that will serve as an example for the country and the rest of the world.”
Business owners including Kelly Klein of Groennfell Meadery and Havoc Mead, Chad Farrell, of Encore Renewable Energy, Adam Knudsen of Dynapower and Michael Schmell of Junction Fuels, spoke of wanting to represent their industries, be a productive part of finding solutions, and serve the communities where they live.
“Our employees and company stakeholders really care about climate and want to make an impact,” Klein said. “I would also like to represent the needs of other small businesses in Vermont.
“Most of us really want to do the right thing,” Klein said. “If we can make it easy to do the right thing by educating people and making it affordable, small business owners will do everything they can.”
The council’s task is significant. The council is responsible for a plan that will help the state reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 26 percent of 2005 levels by 2025, by 40 percent of 1990 levels by 2030, and by 80 percent of 1990 levels by 2050.
The council is charged with identifying, analyzing and evaluating new strategies to meet those greenhouse gas targets, build climate resilience and establish criteria for determining its progress.
While the council has until Dec. 1 of next year to present that plan to the Legislature, Young suggested a timeline in which a draft will be presented for public comment by Oct. 1.
In its next two meetings, Young suggested that the council hear reports on the current state of Vermont’s climate and greenhouse gas emissions. That will include a report from council member Lesley-Ann Dupigny-Giroux, the state climatologist, and reports from state agencies on existing emissions reduction programs, resilience programs, the role of natural working lands, and the importance of assuring equity as part of the process.
While the council’s next meeting is set for December, Duval, of the Energy Action Network, suggested that twice-monthly meetings might make more sense, given the scope of work and the timeline. “I think it will be very important early on,” he said.