No freeze on wind projects, but greater voice for towns
By Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Press Bureau | April 24,2013
MONTPELIER — Opponents of mountaintop wind power development won’t get the three-year moratorium they sought at the outset of the 2013 legislative session.
But advocates of the temporary ban say a compromise package being voted out of a House committee this week could at least bring more scrutiny of the regulatory process that governs ridgeline wind projects.
The movement to impose a moratorium on utility-scale wind projects lost steam almost immediately this year. Even in the Senate, where skepticism of the technology is more concentrated, proponents of the temporary ban could muster only enough support for a bill that called on state agencies to study its impacts on public health and the environment.
House lawmakers have since watered the bill down even further, eliminating the study in favor of a series of off-session meetings between the House and Senate committees on natural resources.
But Sen. Robert Hartwell, a Bennington County Democrat and lead sponsor of the original moratorium language, said he believes those summer hearings will yield legislation next year that will amplify citizens’ voices in the regulatory process.
“I think it’s an interesting process (the House) is proposing, and I think we should take advantage of it,” Hartwell said Tuesday.
Rep. Tony Klein, an East Montpelier Democrat and chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources and Energy, was among the most strident opponents of the wind moratorium, saying it would undo a movement in Vermont aimed at building in-state renewable energy capacity.
He said even the study proposal that came out of the Senate was unnecessary, given the reams of data the state has already commissioned.
“Since 1998, we’ve had 29 studies, reports, commissions, et cetera, that have looked at anything and everything you could think of when it comes to wind siting in this state,” Klein said. “We weren’t really happy about doing another one, because it’s timely, it’s costly, and frankly we don’t need it.”
But Klein said some of the arguments made by Hartwell and others about problems with the regulatory process are valid. Specifically, Klein said, he agrees that citizens should have more opportunity to register their concerns, and that the regulatory process should pay greater heed to town and regional planning codes.
“As far as making the Public Service Board process much more accessible by the average Vermonter, there’s nothing wrong with that ...,” Klein said. “I think making it so the PSB has to give more consideration to regional plans and town plans is also not inappropriate.”
Klein said the six hearings called for in the bill being voted out of his committee will provide a chance to draft legislation for 2014 that will deliver those changes.
Matt Levin, outreach and policy director for Vermonters for a Clean Environment, which had lobbied for the moratorium, said the hearings are a positive step.
“It indicates that the issues are getting more of a hearing than they ever have, have a sense of legitimacy that they haven’t had in the past, and that there is a path forward for the conversation to continue,” Levin said. “And those are all very good things.”
Levin and Hartwell said they will likely push for additional changes when the House and Senate meet next week to iron out a final compromise.
“But to the extent that these hearings provide a mechanism to figure out solutions to what now is not a very democratic process, then I think it’s a good thing,” Hartwell said.
Not everyone is happy with the House proposal. Sen. Peter Galbraith, a Windham County Democrat and moratorium supporter, said Klein’s committee has “completely eviscerated” the Senate bill.
He said he has little faith that summer legislative hearings would resolve the issues his original bill sought to address.
“And now we have yet another summer study committee,” Galbraith said. “Getting to know members of each others’ committees better sounds like a lovely idea, but I’m not sure I would ask the taxpayers of Vermont to pay for it.”