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Renewable Bill Faces Possible Veto, Legislature Eyes Fix

Toby Talbot
Concerns around aspects of a renewable energy siting bill that passed the Legislature in the last few hours of the 2016 session could lead Gov. Peter Shumlin to veto the bill.

The Shumlin administration and legislative leaders are questioning aspects of a renewable energy siting bill passed in the waning hours of the 2016 legislative session. The concerns may prompt Gov. Peter Shumlin to veto the bill, according to Rep. Tony Klein, the chairman of the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee.

Klein led the House to a unanimous 142-0 vote in favor of the bill. But he said Friday that changes were made in the committee of conference that may trigger a veto.

“The things that the conference committee threw in at the last minute were never in the underlying bill, and those are the pieces that are causing the big problems,” he said.

The legislation is called Senate Bill 230, and it will give towns more sway over the regulatory process used to approve or deny energy projects, provided they develop municipal plans that are deemed to be in compliance with the state's overarching renewable energy goals.

But Klein and his counterpart in the Senate, Addison County Sen. Christopher Bray, identified four issues with the bill, as raised by lawyers in the governor’s office and by the renewable energy industry:

  •  The bill says the Public Service Board would undertake expedited rulemaking for sound standards for wind projects. But in order to do so, some lawmakers, the administration and the industry are concerned that the PSB would have to conclude that there is a public safety or health emergency that requires the expedited rules.

“The PSB doesn’t like it and the governor would never go there,” Klein said.
Bray added: “Some people are worried that by even borrowing [the expedited rulemaking] process, we will have in fact declared that this is an emergency.”

  • The final bill left out $300,000 in funding for regional planning commissions to help towns plan for renewable energy. Bray called this a drafting error that occurred in the waning minutes of the conference committee.
  •  The bill says the PSB should set sound standards no louder than what it’s issued in previous permits.  Brays says the PSB found that it had approved sound standards at lower levels for a wind project in Vergennes built in a residential neighborhood. 

“They (The PSB) were concerned that they would be required to set that very low standard” for future projects reviewed under the expedited rule, Bray said. The wind industry also has raised questions about this provision, he said.

  •  Permits issued by the PSB — known as a “certificate of public good” — have to be included in land records filed with town clerks. Bray said real estate lawyers have raised questions about this language.

Both Bray and Klein described the problems as a consequence of a rush to get the bill approved before the Legislature adjourned.  
“For the most part, [the problematic provisions] were all inserted in the last committee of conference in an hour of the last day, literally with people coming up to the door repeatedly saying ‘you only have a few more minutes before the House is no longer going to suspend rules and take this up, so you need to be finished now,’“ Bray said.

Shumlin’s office did not return a call for comment.

Both lawmakers expressed hope that the issues can be addressed in June if the governor vetoes the bill. The Legislature could come back into session June 9 to deal with a bill the governor has already vetoed. Klein said Shumlin would have to veto the renewable bill, and then a substitute measure would have to be approved on June 9.

Klein described a complicated process to get the needed changes. “You’d have to vote on the override, but it would be after you created the new legislation, therefore there would be no reason to attempt a real override,” Klein said.

Bray said he hopes a version can be passed that satisfies the concerns of local communities.

“We heard from Vermonters saying they wanted a greater voice in the siting of energy projects and S 230 offers a planning program that allows them to have that greater voice,” he said. “The second thing was, we heard from Vermonters related to sound from wind generation. So we created a rulemaking process to deliver standards on sound. So those are both things that many, many Vermonters want, and it’s important for us to get them delivered.”

Update 10:17 a.m., May 28, 2016: Sen. Bray's quotes were fixed to adhere completely to the transcription of the taped interview. 

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