Effort to Hold Big Oil Accountable Clears Key Hurdle

MONTPELIER, VT – A key legislative committee approved the Climate Superfund Act, S.259, today. With a unanimous, tripartisan vote, the Senate Judiciary Committee advanced this landmark legislation.

Sen. Dick Sears (Bennington), Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee stated, “The Climate Superfund Act builds on Vermont’s long tradition of holding polluters accountable. The damage that fossil fuels are causing in our communities continues to grow, with flooding in the last year alone resulting in massive costs to our state. I’m pleased my committee unanimously supported moving this important policy forward.”

S.259 will establish a Vermont Climate Superfund to recoup expenses from the largest fossil fuel companies that Vermonters and the State have incurred and will incur due to climate change from carbon pollution from fossil fuels over the last 30 years. Recovered funds will be used to pay for disaster recovery and to mitigate future damages.

Organizations that worked closely on the bill during the committee process praised Chair Sears and his colleagues for their building consensus around the fundamental value that polluters should be required to pay a fair share of the costs to clean up their mess.

“We applaud the Senate Judiciary Committee for supporting S.259,” said Ben Edgerly Walsh, VPIRG Climate & Energy Program Director. “The senators really dug into both the law and the science that support this legislation, and they made significant improvements throughout the process. Their passage of the Climate Superfund Act today represents a historic step towards both preparing Vermont for the climate crisis and towards holding the fossil fuel companies responsible for it accountable for their fair share of its costs.”

“Today’s historic committee vote represents real progress in the struggle to hold the world’s largest fossil fuel companies accountable for the climate chaos their profit-making activities have inflicted on Vermont,” said Elena Mihaly, Vice President of Conservation Law Foundation, Vermont. “Conservation Law Foundation is proud to have contributed to the committee’s careful consideration of this bill and will continue to work with the legislature and the administration to see its enactment into law this year.”

In addition to hearing from legal scholars and scientific experts, the Judiciary Committee took testimony from the Attorney General, the State Treasurer, and multiple representatives from the Agency of Natural Resources, including the agency Secretary.

“I support the policy behind this bill. I believe in a ‘polluter pays’ model,” said Attorney General Charity Clark during her testimony. “It makes sense that the major contributors to the climate crisis we are experiencing here in Vermont should pay a fair share when it comes to our costs with dealing with that crisis.” She went on to add, “If we are sued, I will proudly defend this bill.”

The legislation embraces a concept that Treasurer Mike Pieciak endorsed in his Earth Day 2023 message: “It’s simple: if you create the mess, you should be responsible for helping clean it up. Under Polluter Pays, companies most responsible for contributing to the climate crisis would be required to directly fund efforts to address the impacts of climate change. Though it may be a new solution in fighting climate change, it’s not a new concept for protecting our environment.”

In a letter to the Committee, the directors of the Environmental Advocacy Clinic and the Environmental Justice Clinic at the Vermont Law & Graduate School and the Faculty Supervisor of the Goldman Sonnenfeldt Environmental Protection Clinic at Yale Law School wrote that the Vermont Climate Superfund Act is “enormously important for Vermont and, indeed, for the world. S.259 would, for the first time in the United States and arguably anywhere on the planet, unmistakably establish the responsibility of fossil fuel companies to help cover the monetary costs of adapting to the harmful impacts of climate change. The bill’s provisions are vital to the future of Vermont, as made tragically plain by the catastrophic flooding the state endured during July 2023 and during Tropical Storm Irene in 2011. The provisions also would become a model for other governments around the world to follow as they seek to establish accountability for the unbearable costs and consequences of climate change.”

Robb Kidd of the Vermont Sierra Club wrote that, “By making big oil pay for the damage it has caused, we can start to repair damages brought by a changing climate and maintain a safe, healthy environment for future generations. They have polluted our planet for decades– here is our chance to make them chip in to fix it.”

“We deeply appreciate the Senate Judiciary Committee’s thorough and thoughtful work to advance this important bill,” said Vermont Natural Resources Council’s Energy & Climate Program Director Johanna Miller. “The world’s largest fossil fuel companies have long known the consequences their products would have, and now communities are left paying exorbitantly high prices to clean up from fossil-fueled disasters. This policy is critical to ensuring Big Oil helps pay for the growing costs of a warming world.”

“The Vermont legislature has a history of holding polluters accountable for the harm they cause, and this bill builds on that powerful legacy. As one of many Vermonters who lived through a climate disaster in my community this year, this legislation couldn’t be more timely or pressing,” added Lauren Hierl, Executive Director of Vermont Conservation Voters.

“Vermont’s business community understands first-hand the damage caused by climate change. Small businesses should not have to shoulder the financial burden alone of a mess they did not create. S.259 gets to the root of the problem by holding the country’s largest fossil fuel corporations accountable to pay their fair share,” shared Roxanne Vought, Executive Director of the Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility.

Having made the Legislature’s “crossover” deadline, S.259 now heads to the Senate Appropriations and Finance Committees and, hopefully, the Senate floor later this month.