Vermont advances bill targeting oil and gas companies for climate cleanup

By Dana Drugmand

In the aftermath of costly flooding that swept the US Northeast last year, lawmakers in Vermont on Tuesday advanced a proposed new law that aims to make fossil fuel companies liable for the costs of cleaning up communities battered by climate change-related events.

In a 26-3 vote, the state senate passed what state lawmakers are calling the “Climate Superfund Act.” If the bill becomes law, it would be the first of its kind in the country, imposing strict liability for carbon pollution on large oil and gas companies that produce carbon-based fuels. Like the federal Superfund program that holds polluters liable for hazardous waste contamination, the “climate superfund” concept proposes to replicate this polluter pays program for climate pollution.

“I’m proud to vote yes today to respond to the greatest overarching existential threat of our time,” Vermont Sen. Becca White said following the vote.

The measure now moves on to the Vermont House of Representatives, where support appears strong.

“This is a bill that had a lot of support going into the session,” said Ben Edgerly Walsh, climate and energy program director at Vermont Public Interest Research Group. “We’re pretty optimistic that the House is going to take it up and move it before the end of the session.”

Last July, exceedingly heavy rainfall led to damaging flooding in the US Northeast, submerging streets in Vermont’s capital city of Montpelier, as well as thousands of acres of farmland across the state. One hard-hit farming operation, the Intervale Community Farm in Burlington, Vermont, lost an estimated $200,000 of its vegetable crops when 99% of the farm flooded.

Vermont’s bill would assess a one-time fee on fossil fuel companies responsible for more than 1 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions over the last 30 years. The bill leaves the task of determining which companies would pay, and how much each would owe, to the state’s Agency of Natural Resources and the state treasurer, as well as the task of calculating Vermont’s costs of recovering from and adapting to climate impacts.