Vermont passes bill to tax fossil fuel companies for damages from climate change

Vermont lawmakers this week passed a bill aimed at making major fossil fuel companies pay for damages from weather disasters caused by climate change.

The legislation is modeled after the Environmental Protection Agency’s superfund program, which requires the companies responsible for environmental pollution to clean up the sites themselves or reimburse the government for the cost of the work to do so.

Vermont’s bill, known as the Climate Superfund Act, would similarly require major oil companies and others with high emissions to pay for the damage caused by global warming.

The amounts owed would be determined based on calculations of how much climate change contributed to Vermont’s extreme weather, and how much money those weather disasters cost the state. From there, companies’ share of the total would depend on how many tons of carbon dioxide were released into the atmosphere between 2000 and 2019.

The law passed with just three votes in the Vermont Senate in early April, followed by passage in the state House on Monday. The Senate will take a final vote later this week before the bill heads to Republican Gov. Phil Scott’s desk.

State Senator Anne Watsona co-sponsor of the bill, said she hopes that if the law goes into effect, it will encourage major oil companies to “become suppliers of renewable energy sources and keep fossil fuels in the ground.”

It is the first bill of its kind passed in the United States. Massachusetts, Maryland and New York have similar policies, but only New York’s bill has passed a chamber of the state legislature. Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., also tried to introduce similar legislation at the federal level as part of the infrastructure bill passed in 2022, but that did not make it into law. Final design.

In Vermont, the money companies pay for fossil fuels would go toward modernizing infrastructure, weatherproofing schools and public buildings, cleaning up from storms and addressing the public health costs of climate change.

The bill hinges on the ability to assess how much damage has been caused in Vermont by climate change — an accounting that would rely on a line of research known as attribution science. Over the past two decades, researchers have improved their ability to confidently model the extent to which human influence has contributed to the severity and frequency of extreme weather.

“We can say very clearly, ‘We would not be experiencing these intense global temperatures without human-induced climate change and the history of carbon pollution,’” said Andrew Pershing, vice president for science at Climate Central, a nonprofit that conducts attribution scientific research.

Pershing pointed to extremely heavy rainfall as something scientists can attribute to a warmer atmosphere.

“New England has seen a 60% increase in its heaviest precipitation days,” he said, explaining that “for every 1 degree Fahrenheit increase in temperature you get a 4% increase in the amount of water vapor the atmosphere can hold . ”

In Vermont specifically, last winter was the warmest on record. It came after the state experienced record-breaking rainfall in July, which caused catastrophic flooding. The storm cost the Northeast nearly $2.2 billion, according to an estimate from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Sen. Russ Ingalls, a Republican, said he cast one of three “no” votes because he expects the bill would lead to major lawsuits and thinks the money the state would have to spend on those legal battles would be better could be used.

“The decision was made to wage war against companies that probably have as many lawyers as we citizens,” he said. “We will be crushed like an insect.”

Indeed, the law is expected to hit the courts once Vermont determines which companies will be asked to pay, and how much. Previous super fund cases were lengthy, complex and expensive.

The American Petroleum Institute, one of the leading lobbyists for the interests of oil and natural gas companies, sent a letter to the Senate opposing the bill, saying it “violates the equal protection and right to due process afforded by companies accountable for society’s actions. in general.”

The group declined to comment beyond the letter.

But Watson said Vermont’s attorney general told lawmakers she is “ready and willing to defend this law.”

“The science linking climate change to severe weather damage is robust enough to withstand scrutiny,” she added.

Other supporters of the bill also say Vermonters should not have to bear the costs of responding and preparing for climate change.

“You see cities across the state flooded, and communities and businesses financially devastated. The reality of the climate crisis is really sinking in,” said Ben Edgerly Walsh, climate and energy program director for the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, which has advocated for the bill’s passage. “These are facts that we are dealing with in real time and for which we need the financial resources.”

Once the bill hits Scott’s desk, he could still choose to veto it, though the governor hasn’t indicated one way or the other whether he’s likely to do so.

If he vetoes the bill, Vermont law calls for it to be sent back to the Legislature, where it must again be passed by a supermajority in the Senate and House of Representatives to override the veto. Given that the bill has already passed with a supermajority — and that Scott has faced several veto overrides during his term — this is expected to happen again.

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