Sen. Bernard Sanders has found himself accused of something he has seldom been accused of: selling out the little guy to the big corporations.
In an unusual move, Sanders on Monday inserted himself into a state issue, coming out against a proposed moratorium on ridgeline wind development. He said the moratorium would send a harmful message to the nation that Vermont, an environmental leader, was turning its back on efforts to combat climate change.
Opponents say ridgeline wind development will have a negligible effect on climate change and is not worth the destruction of pristine mountaintops. They say wind developers are in it for the tax breaks and the credits that they can sell to polluting industries. Thus, a group of state senators has introduced a bill calling for a three-year moratorium on ridgeline wind development so Vermont can examine the question more closely.
Sanders may now be feeling the wrath of passionate wind opponents, who have been stirred to activism and civil disobedience by Green Mountain Power’s wind installation on Lowell Mountain. Aware of the controversy in Lowell, opposition has become more pronounced at other wind sites, as well, notably the Ira region, the Hubbardton-Pittsford region and Windham County.
Sanders’ announcement was welcomed by environmental leaders in Vermont who support wind power. And most polls suggest that, despite the bitter feelings in specific areas, public opinion in Vermont supports wind power. So Sanders’ opposition to the moratorium may not hurt him badly politically.
Much of the rhetoric of the wind foes centers on the corporate interests that stand to make money from wind farms, especially David Blittersdorf, president and CEO of All Earth Renewables. Blittersdorf has been politically supportive of Gov. Peter Shumlin, fostering notions of a wind-powered political cabal. So is Sanders really ready to line up with the corporations against the people?
In supporting wind power, Sanders is taking on corporations far more powerful and pernicious than Vermont’s wind industry. To the extent that wind power grows, the hold of the fossil fuel industry weakens. That puts Sanders on the right side of the corporate battle for our energy future. And as with solar power, wind power depends on the development of numerous relatively small projects in order to have an impact to offset fossil fuels in a big way.
Sanders noted that he did not want to allow wind developers to “bulldoze their way to a project.” He said local communities must have a say about whether a project will go forward.
In fact, despite widespread support for wind power, opposition has been growing when specific projects are proposed. The poll showing that Vermonters support wind power would show a different result if it were restricted to Pittsford or Hubbardton. Opposition in those towns, as in Castleton and West Rutland, has effectively imposed a moratorium on the project contemplated by Reunion Power.
Shumlin also supports a local veto on wind projects, though opponents note that towns are at a disadvantage because they do not have legal standing to block a project. Nevertheless, Shumlin’s previous public service commissioner, Elizabeth Miller, has been clear that the state takes local sentiment seriously when formulating its response to a wind project. Shumlin and the new commissioner, Chris Recchia, need to assure Vermonters that their deference to local sentiment is more than lip service.
Shumlin has appointed a panel to examine the approval process for power projects, partly because local communities feel they do not have a meaningful say. In the meantime, Vermonters ought to keep the way open for wind projects that are able to win local support, while remaining sensitive to the interests of communities that oppose specific projects. As Sanders says, the moratorium sends the wrong message. Wind power is not a panacea, but halting the momentum in the development of renewable power is the wrong way to go.
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