A bill that would subject renewable energy projects to more regulation has bitterly divided environmentalists.
Most mainstream environmental groups oppose the legislation, saying it presents unnecessary hurdles to clean energy projects.
But wind opponents say the groups have abandoned their long time mission of environmental protection.
The legislation would give local communities an effective veto in deciding whether a renewable project is built in their town. The bill does that by saying projects must follow the land use criteria in Act 250, Vermont’s main development control law. Act 250 says developments shall conform with town and regional plans
Steve Wright of Craftsbury is a former state fish and wildlife commissioner who’s been involved in environmental issues for four decades. So he said he’s incredulous that mainstream environmental groups – whose key principles include a vigorous defense of Act 250 – do not want to see the landmark land use law extended to energy projects.
"When the environmental community in Vermont won’t support a bill that has as its core a more effective use of Act 250, that’s a problem," Wright said.
The organizations lined up against the bill include the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, the Vermont Natural Resources Council, the Vermont office of the Conservation Law Foundation, the local chapter of the Sierra Club, anti nuclear groups, and the Northeast office of the National Wildlife Federation.
John Ewing, a former chairman of the state environmental board, says the issue has badly divided environmentalists. He supports the Senate bill. He noted that energy projects are now reviewed by the Public Service Board, which – as it implements state policy that promotes renewable development – is inclined to approve them.
"Whereas if it had a more adequate environmental review and the impact on aesthetics that Act 250 provides, and opportunity for citizen participation that Act 250 provides, that would make a big difference and I think a lot of the conflicts that we see now and the gridlock would go away if we had a proper process," Ewing said.
Brian Shupe is executive director of the Vermont Natural Resources Council. He supports Act 250. But he said the renewable bill is flawed because it does not impose the same review on all energy projects. For example, he pointed out that transmission lines are exempt.
Shupe says lawmakers should hold off until a gubernatorial commission that’s examining how renewable projects are reviewed completes its work next month.
"The siting commission is working in the direction of strengthening the role of regional planning and perhaps local planning in making decisions about local renewable energy development," he said. "But this bill by providing the local veto over a broad range of not very large renewable energy facilities is really counterproductive to what we need to do as a state."
The legislation has sparked antagonism over the role of ridgeline wind projects. Opponents like Steve Wright say electric generation accounts for just 4 percent of Vermont’s greenhouse gas footprint. So he argues it’s better to preserve intact, upland ecosystems that protect against flooding and other impacts of climate change. Wright has strong words for the mainstream groups.
"The environmental groups have effectively become land developers and the public suffers from that because they don’t get good information," he said.
Paul Burns, executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, said he’s on the side of the majority Vermonters, not just the renewable industry.
"We’re standing with real champions on climate and energy issues like Sen. Bernie Sanders and Bill McKibben, and virtually all the environmental organizations that have played a role on energy policy in the last decade," Burns said. "So we’re standing with those folks who have looked carefully at the issue and the question of where our energy will come from."
The bill comes up for debate this week in the Senate. If it passes, its prospects in the House are far less certain.