Future Of Hard-Fought Renewable Siting Bill Uncertain As Shumlin Weighs Veto

May 31, 2016

Will the Legislature convene a veto session next month? It’s the question that’s on a lot of people’s minds in Montpelier these days, but it’s still unclear whether concerns about a renewable energy siting bill will trigger a gubernatorial veto, or what happens to the legislation if it does.

Communities across Vermont want more sway over the process used to determine where renewable energy projects are built. A bill passed in the waning hours of the 2016 legislative session tried to boost their influence.

But eleventh-hour wrangling over various provisions led to some last-minute additions to the legislation.

“And people are just throwing things into the boiling pot thinking that they’re fine without doing any due diligence, without taking any testimony,” says East Montpelier Rep. Tony Klein. “And that’s a terrible way to create legislation, and that’s what happened.”

Klein, the outgoing Democratic chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources and Energy, says some of those last-minute additions now jeopardize passage of an underlying bill that had overwhelming support in both chambers of the Legislature.

Gov. Peter Shumlin says he hasn’t determined yet whether the concerns are severe enough to warrant a veto.

“We’re still trying to figure out what is in it and what it means,” Shumlin says.

Lawmakers and administration officials have identified a number of potential unintended consequences in the legislation, including one that might force new wind projects to adhere to impossibly low sound standards.

Shumlin says he appreciates lawmakers’ efforts to give towns an opportunity to have more say in the renewable energy siting process.

“The bad news is from my perspective, we have some real concern that it might put the brakes on the ability to build renewables when we desperately need to do so,” Shumlin says.

Klein says a requirement for the Public Service Board to fast-track interim rules for new sound standards for wind projects has also raised red flags.

Shumlin says he’s not going to comment on whether it would be worth trying to salvage the bill until he's decided whether to break out the veto pen.

"The bad news is from my perspective, we have some real concern that it might put the brakes on the ability to build renewables when we desperately need to do so." — Gov. Peter Shumlin

“Then we can look at the question of, do we fix it? Or do we just veto it and move on?” Shumlin says.

Addison Sen. Chris Bray, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources, says veto or no, the core purpose of the legislation is too important to let die.

“And so I’m all for finding whatever mechanics we can that cures the defects and delivers the bill," Bray says.

Bray and Klein say that if Shumlin vetoes the legislation, then lawmakers could return for a one-day session to redraft a cleaner version of the bill, then pass that version and send it to the governor’s desk for his signature.

If Shumlin does veto the bill, then any attempt to salvage it will be conducted on June 9, the date lawmakers scheduled a veto session, in the event one was needed.

Klein and Bray have 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.