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Sparks

Vermont Is One Signature Away From Making Big Oil Pay for Climate Change

The state’s Republican governor has a decision to make.

Vermont flooding.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

A first-of-its-kind attempt to make fossil fuel companies pay for climate damages is nearly through the finish line in Vermont. Both branches of the state legislature voted to pass the Climate Superfund Act last week, which would hit oil and gas companies with a bill for the costs of addressing, avoiding, and adapting to a world made warmer by oil and gas-related carbon emissions.

The bill now heads to the desk of Republican Governor Phil Scott, who has not said whether he will sign it. If he vetoes it, however, there’s enough support in the legislature to override his decision, Martin LaLonde, a representative from South Burlington and lead sponsor of the bill, told me. “It's a matter of making sure everybody shows up,” he said.

The Superfund Act is one of several actions the Vermont legislature is taking to address climate change this year. Another bill would strengthen the state’s clean electricity target, requiring utilities to source 100% of their electricity from renewable sources by 2035. (Existing law sets the target at 75% renewable energy by 2032.) A third bill pushes forward a number of innovative utility programs, including Burlington Electric Company’s “gasoline superuser” program that would incentivize the people who drive the most to switch to an electric vehicle.

In addition to Vermont, four other states are contemplating climate superfund legislation this year. Climate superfund bills in Maryland and Massachusetts have stalled, but nearly identical policies are still moving through statehouses in New York and California.

All five states have also attempted to sue fossil fuel companies for damages or misleading the public about the dangers of their products or both, but none of the cases has yet made it to trial. The Superfund idea represents a new approach. Oil and gas companies are sure to fight the law in court, but if they do, the burden of proof will fall on them, rather than on the states.

LaLonde, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee in Vermont, helped craft the bill early on, working closely with the legislative council. He wanted to understand the bill’s legal vulnerabilities and any other issues that could hold it up, but ultimately determined it was an entirely defensible concept. The bill is modeled after the federal Superfund law, which gives the Environmental Protection Agency the authority to recover the cost of cleanup of heavily contaminated sites from those responsible for the contamination.

“I think it's fairly straightforward that these companies should pay their fair share of remediation,” LaLonde told me, “They've made billions and billions of dollars selling this product and have caused a lot of damage. And they knew about this. They knew the impacts.”

What’s less straightforward is determining what constitutes a fair share. First, the State Treasurer will be tasked with assessing the cost incurred by Vermont as a result of global emissions from fossil fuels between 1995 and 2024 — Vermont incurred damages estimated at hundreds of millions of dollars from flooding in 2023 alone. The state’s Department of Natural Resources will also have to map out a resilience strategy, which would be funded by proceeds from the Superfund law. The soonest it could begin paying out is 2028, but due to expected legal challenges, even that timeline is unlikely to hold.

“It is a big deal to get moving on this,” said LaLonde. “But boy, we have a long road to go.”

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Emily Pontecorvo profile image

Emily Pontecorvo

Emily is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Previously she was a staff writer at the nonprofit climate journalism outlet Grist, where she covered all aspects of decarbonization, from clean energy to electrified buildings to carbon dioxide removal.

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