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Vermont House passes Climate Superfund Act with tripartisan support

Brightly colored tulips in the foreground of the Vermont Statehouse
Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Public
Lawmakers in the Vermont House voted Monday to advance a bill that endeavors to collect climate damages from big fossil fuel companies.

The Vermont House has passed a landmark bill that would force the biggest fossil fuel companies in the world to compensate the state for damage wrought by climate change.

Modeled after the federal Superfund program, the policy would require companies like ExxonMobil Corporation and Shell to pay Vermont a share of what climate change has cost the state in recent decades. Vermont would use those payments to establish a program to fund recovery from climate-fueled disasters and work to adapt to the state’s already-changed climate.

Vermont could become the first state in the country to enact such legislation. New York, California, Massachusetts and Maryland are all considering similar bills, as is Congress.

But Gov. Phil Scott has signaled he will likely veto the bill over concerns about how much it would cost the state to take big oil companies to court — and how long it would take Vermont to recoup damages. The Senate passed the bill in late March by a vote of 26 to 3.

The bill targets companies that extract and refine the fuels for damages, rather than the small businesses that distribute them, like fuel dealers or gas stations.

It comes following Vermont’s tangle last summer with flooding, which officials say cost the state north of $1 billion in property damages. The state climatologist says the extreme rain Vermont saw during that event was made worse by human-caused climate change, and it’s part of a trend the state should expect to continue in the coming decades.

A refrigerator lays on its side amid scattered debris
Liam Elder-Connors
Vermont Public
Flood waters tore through a Wolcott home in July 2023, knocking over appliances and depositing mud and sewage over everything.

Many Vermonters remain displaced from their homes and small communities are still reeling financially following that event. Meanwhile, companies like Exxon, Chevron and Shell have reported record high profits in recent years, and continue to expand their fossil fuel production.

Several House Republicans have echoed the governor’s concern about the costs of the litigation. A few told their peers they thought it was wrong to contemplate suing big oil companies for the damage their products are causing because Vermonters have burned fossil fuels for decades.

“I think we have to all recognize we bought this stuff. We’re still buying it,” said Rep. Anne Donahue, a Republican from Northfield. “We are complicit. Madam Speaker, we create the market and without our actions, without a market, none of this damage would exist. It takes two to tango, but the bigger partner is the one who is creating the market as purchasers.”

Executives at top oil companies have made similar arguments over the years.

Extensive reporting shows that Exxon’s own research confirmed fossil fuels’ role in global warming decades ago, and that the companies have systematically sought to conceal that information from the public.

Donahue ended up voting for the bill Monday despite her concern. She was joined by one other Republican, Scott Beck of St. Johnsbury.

Rep. Laura Sibilia, an independent from Dover who is vice chair of the Environment and Energy Committee, urged her colleagues to support the bill. She argued that Vermont taxpayers and small businesses are paying for climate damages — a dynamic she called inequitable.

“The aftermath of these storms has left many small towns reeling,” she said. “They are facing immense financial challenges in rebuilding and recovery. Small business owners who are the backbone of these communities have struggled mightily to recover expenses for repairs, renovations and replacements.”

A person picks up long pieces of white material
Charles Krupa
Associated Press
Elijah Lemieux, of the Vermont Rural Water Association, cleans up debris that was left by rising waters over the wastewater clarifier at the treatment plant following July flooding, Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2023, in Ludlow. Across the U.S., municipal water systems and sewage treatment plants are at increasing risk of damage from floods and sea-level rise brought on in part or even wholly by climate change. The storm that walloped Ludlow especially hard, damaging the picturesque ski town’s system for cleaning up sewage before it’s discharged into the Williams River.

Rep. Gina Galfetti, a Republican from Barre, voted against the bill.

She said she agrees that big oil companies should pay a share of the damage caused by climate change, but she doesn’t want Vermont to lead the way.

“Going after big oil is going to be extremely costly,” she said. “And I just don’t know if Vermonters can afford it right now. We have an opportunity to wait things out, to see if a legal precedent is set in other states before we dive into this.”

The bill goes back to the Senate for final review before it can go to Gov. Scott’s desk.

With Scott expected to veto the policy, lawmakers would need to secure the votes of two-thirds of the members present in both chambers to override him.

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Abagael is Vermont Public's climate and environment reporter, focusing on the energy transition and how the climate crisis is impacting Vermonters — and Vermont’s landscape.

Abagael joined Vermont Public in 2020. Previously, she was the assistant editor at Vermont Sports and Vermont Ski + Ride magazines. She covered dairy and agriculture for The Addison Independent and got her start covering land use, water and the Los Angeles Aqueduct for The Sheet: News, Views & Culture of the Eastern Sierra in Mammoth Lakes, Ca.