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'We Have No Strategy': Lawmakers Eye New Plan For Emissions Reductions

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Elodie Reed
/
VPR File
Thetford Rep. Tim Briglin is among the Vermont lawmakers considering legislation that would allow private citizens to sue the state of Vermont if it doesn't reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Vermont lawmakers are considering legislation that would allow private citizens to sue the state if it doesn’t deliver reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

In 2007, Vermont passed a statute setting lofty goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Thirteen years later, according to a recent inventory, overall emissions remain at about the same levels as when Vermont enacted the law.

Thetford Rep. Tim Briglin, who chairs the House Committee on Energy and Technology, said state policymakers need a strategy to deliver on their promises.

“The circumstance we're in right now in the state as policymakers is, we have no strategy," he said. "Right now, we are kind of throwing spaghetti against the wall: A little energy efficiency measure here, some electric vehicle incentives here."

"We have a history of having these really important goals on the books and not making sufficient progress to meet them." — Jen Duggan, Conservation Law Foundation

Briglin and other lawmakers say it’s time for a new approach. Instead of setting emission-reduction goals, they want to create emission-reduction mandates. If Vermont fails to hit those targets, they want to let citizens sue the state to force it to act.

“I think just generally speaking, it communicates to people in Vermont how serious we are about reducing greenhouse gas emissions and building a more resilient state,” Briglin said.

Vermont wouldn’t be the first state to subject itself to this sort of legal liability. At least 26 states allow citizens to sue their government to enforce environmental laws. But it’s not a universally popular idea.

“Setting artificial [goals], or these goals that could be challenged, could just take resources away from the climate initiatives themselves,” Gov. Phil Scott said.

Scott said lawmakers have no way of knowing if the emissions mandates they’re setting are actually achievable. And he said they’re setting the stage for a costly legal battle if Vermont doesn’t meet them.

While the bill wouldn't allow citizens to sue the state for monetary damages, it would require Vermont to pay the plaintiff's attorney fees if he or she wins the case.

“And there will be a challenge from some environmental group, a lawsuit, and take resources away from the initiative itself,” Scott said.

"Setting artificial [goals], or these goals that could be challenged, could just take resources away from the climate initiatives themselves." — Gov. Phil Scott

Jen Duggan, director of the Conservation Law Foundation of Vermont, said fear of that legal battle is precisely the point.

“This bill will force those hard conversations,” Duggan said. “As of now, it’s easier to punt those hard conversations. This bill requires that they happen.”

Duggan said the desire to avoid a lawsuit will compel the government to act. She added Vermont has shown that it needs that added level of urgency.

“We have a history of having these really important goals on the books and not making sufficient progress to meet them,” Duggan said.

Per-capita greenhouse gas emissions in Vermont are higher than in any other state in the Northeast, according to Vermont’s latest emissions inventory. States including Maine, Massachusetts and New York have all put emission-reduction mandates into state law.

The legislation introduced by Briglin, called the “Global Warming Solutions Act,” would require Vermont to reduce its greenhouse emissions by 26% by 2025, compared to 2005 levels. The bill also requires a 40% reduction in emissions by 2030 over 1990 levels, and an 80% reduction in emissions by 2050 over 1990 levels.

"There is no question that there's going to be investment that will be involved in making this transition, no question at all." — Thetford Rep. Tim Briglin

Geoff Gardner, a climate advocate from Bradford, said he doesn’t think those reduction targets are aggressive enough, and he fears there are too many escape clauses in the bill.

Although the bill would allow citizens to sue the Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) if Vermont doesn’t hit its emission reduction targets, Gardner worries that won't be enough to hold lawmakers accountable, and the funding will be too unpopular.

Whatever emissions reduction plan ANR devises will require substantial new funding from future Legislatures. Briglin said lawmakers understand this.

“There is no question that there’s going to be investment that will be involved in making this transition, no question at all,” Briglin said.

The cost of inaction, he added, is far greater than whatever it will cost to meet the targets.

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