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Vermont vs. Big Oil

Photo: John Tully Washington Post Archives Of the 300 properties in the town of Barre damaged by flooding in July 2023, many are still in various states of disrepair, and at least 50 are uninhabitable.

Anna Phillips – The Washington Post

Published at 0:00

  • United States

Nearly a year after catastrophic flooding struck Vermont, the town of Barre faces the complex task of preparing for the next climate catastrophe.

Two bridges need to be raised. The northern part of Barre “literally needs to be rebuilt,” said Mayor Thom Lauzon, who was recently elected and now oversees the city's recovery. Of the 300 properties damaged by flooding, many are still in various states of disrepair, and at least 50 are uninhabitable.

Across the country, state and local leaders are scrambling to find the money to protect their communities from worsening disasters brought on by climate change. In Barre, projects needed for flood mitigation will cost the city about $30 million over the next five years, Lauzon said.

However , Vermont has found a new answer to this problem.

Earlier this month, Vermont became the first state in the United States to require fossil fuel companies and other large emitters to pay for the climate-related damage their pollution has already caused on a global scale. the state. While conservative legal experts doubt the law will survive challenges, some Vermonters say they are both grateful and a little concerned that one of the nation's least populous states has chosen to fight one of the industries the most powerful in America.

“I'm proud that the state stood up and said, 'Look, you have to be accountable and you have to help us to repair the damage we have suffered,” said Mr. Lauzon. But I'm also scared to death. I feel like we're a pee-wee football team playing the 2020 New England Patriots.”

The Vermont law comes as oil and gas companies face dozens of climate-related lawsuits, both in the United States and abroad. Although only a few of them have been successful – and the companies are appealing the cases – they represent a growing threat and increase the potential liabilities of companies. If Vermont's innovative approach continues, it could have ripple effects across the industry.

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Republicans are fighting back, however, arguing that states cannot apply their own laws to a global pollutant. Last month, Republican attorneys general from 19 states asked the Supreme Court to block climate change lawsuits filed by California, Connecticut, Minnesota, New Jersey and Rhode Island against fuel companies. fossils.

Vermont law authorizes the state to charge large polluters a fee corresponding to the share of greenhouse gas emissions they produced between 1995 and 2024. It is inspired by the federal Superfund law of 1980, which requires polluting companies to clean up toxic waste sites.

The law does not specify the amounts to be paid; it directs the state treasurer to assess the damage to Vermont from climate change and the cost of preparing for future impacts. The final tally should be comprehensive and take into account a range of possible costs, from rebuilding and raising bridges and roads to reduced worker productivity due to increased heat.

Similar bills in other states

Bills similar to this one from Vermont have been introduced in several states, including California, Maryland and Massachusetts. Last week, New York state lawmakers passed a climate superfund law that would force polluters to pay $3 billion a year for 25 years. This law now awaits the signature of Democratic Governor Kathy Hochul.

According to Ben Edgerly Walsh, director of the climate and energy program at the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, the timing of the Vermont law's adoption was no coincidence. Memories of last July's floods, which submerged the state capital of Montpelier, damaged thousands of homes and trapped residents of small mountain towns, are still fresh in people's minds.

Over the past year, Vermonters have also experienced exceptional late spring frost that damaged crops, foggy skies due to smoke from hundreds of wildfires forests in Canada, and further flooding in mid-December. All of these events have spurred state lawmakers to address climate change in early 2024.

“When we presented this idea to legislators, they were very open-minded, when it would have taken more time, more persuasion, another year,” said Edgerly Walsh. But at that moment we knew we had to act. »

As disaster costs rise, state leaders have not lost sight of the fact that oil companies are reaping considerable profits. In 2023, the hottest year on record, the two largest U.S. energy companies, ExxonMobil and Chevron, together will generate more than $57 billion in revenue.

I feel like we're a pee-wee football team playing the 2020 New England Patriots.

— Thom Lauzon

It may seem unlikely that a state like Vermont, with a population of just under 650,000, would oppose the fossil fuel industry. The state’s Republican governor, Phil Scott, expressed his skepticism in a letter to Vermont’s Senate secretary, writing: “Taking on Big Oil should not be taken lightly. And with only $600,000 allocated by the Legislature to complete an analysis that will have to withstand extensive legal scrutiny from a well-funded defense, we are in no position to succeed. »

Yet Vermont's small budget — its GDP is the lowest in the nation — means it feels the growing risks from heavy rains even more than wealthier states. According to a report from Rebuild by Design, a nonprofit organization that helps communities recover from disasters, Vermont ranked fifth nationally in per capita disaster costs between 2011 and 2021. , with $593 spent per resident.

Costs are expected to increase. A 2022 study by University of Vermont researchers projects that the cost of property damage from flooding alone could reach $5.2 billion over the next 100 years.

Ultimately, the governor allowed the law to go into effect without his signature, stating that he understood “the desire to seek funding to mitigate the effects of climate change that has affected our State in many ways. »

Legal challenges will inevitably follow — the only question is when.

Disputes on the horizon

The American Petroleum Institute (API), the main pressure group of the he oil and gas industry, said states don't have the authority to regulate carbon pollution and can't retroactively charge companies for emissions allowed by law. He also highlighted individuals' responsibility for climate change, noting that Vermonters use fossil fuels to heat their homes and power their cars. Scott Lauermann, a spokesman for the group, said the API is “considering all possible options to reverse this new punitive tax.”

“I think the courts will have a hard time accepting the idea that Vermont can penalize companies for past actions that were entirely legal and relied upon by the state itself,” said Jeff Holmstead, an energy lawyer who worked at the Environmental Protection Agency under George W. Bush. “I’m skeptical that this project will pass the bar. »

Supporters and environmentalists who helped craft the law said they believe they have created a legally defensible way to recover damages from polluters by drawing on the Superfund law, which has been repeatedly upheld by courts. Several legal experts said the state has also taken a more cautious approach than others by requiring a study before assessing companies' liability, to ensure that fines imposed on companies are proportional to the amount of damage caused. by their products.

Cara Horowitz, executive director of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the University of California Law School Los Angeles, said that inevitably fossil fuel companies will challenge any bill presented by Vermont for damages. But that won't happen for several years, she added, and the industry is likely to act sooner than that.

The lawsuits “will start soon and will go on for a long time,” Mr. Horowitz said. “I would be surprised if they don’t try to preemptively undermine the whole exercise by declaring it illegal.”

In Barre, Mr. Lauzon said he was not sure the litigation over the law would be resolved in his lifetime. But even if fossil fuel companies are never forced to pay, passing the law was the right thing to do.

“I can’t look at the north side, I can’t look at the city of Barre and say that nobody needs to be held accountable,” he said.

Teilor Stone

By Teilor Stone

Teilor Stone has been a reporter on the news desk since 2013. Before that she wrote about young adolescence and family dynamics for Styles and was the legal affairs correspondent for the Metro desk. Before joining Thesaxon , Teilor Stone worked as a staff writer at the Village Voice and a freelancer for Newsday, The Wall Street Journal, GQ and Mirabella. To get in touch, contact me through my teilor@nizhtimes.com 1-800-268-7116