MONTPELIER — Democratic gubernatorial candidate Matt Dunne is drawing strong criticism from environmental advocates and leaders after calling for local referendums over the siting of wind energy projects less than two weeks before the state’s Aug. 9 primary.
On Friday, Dunne, a former Google employee and Windsor County state senator, distributed a press release detailing his stance on the siting of renewable energy projects. At the top of the three points listed Dunne stated that “wind projects should only take place with the approval of the towns where the projects are located.”
“As governor, I will ensure that no means no. Towns should be voting by Australian ballot, and if a town says no to a large industrial wind project I would use all the power of the Governor’s office to ensure that is the end of the project,” Dunne wrote.
Dunne also said the state’s energy future “is largely in solar and small-scale hydro.” Solar, according to Dunne, “does not have the adverse environmental impact of wind and it can be sited in a way that accommodates community concerns.” Additionally, he called for creating incentives for the development of micro grids and renewable energy projects within them.
Dunne’s position drew praise from fellow Democratic gubernatorial candidate Peter Galbraith, a former diplomat and Windham County state senator, who supplied a statement that Dunne used in his release.
“Matt Dunne has consistently shown that he listens to Vermonters,” Galbraith, who wants to ban wind turbines in Vermont, said in the statement. “Matt understands the anguish that large-scale wind projects cause many Vermont communities. His statement today is a big step in the direction of a renewable energy policies that serve the interests of Vermonters, and not the corporations.”
The third candidate in the race, Sue Minter, a former Agency of Transportation secretary, was not as enamored by Dunne’s policy statement.
“I am surprised that we have an 11th-hour flip by Matt on what I think is a really important issue,” Minter said Monday.“My view is that I believe we need to do everything we can to address our carbon footprint to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, to increase our investment in renewable energy of all kinds.”
Dunne’s position to allow local communities to reject wind projects by popular vote drew a quick response from Bill McKibben, an environmental activist and founder of 350.org who was one of Dunne’s early supporters. McKibben, who commands the attention of environmentally-minded voters, withdrew his endorsement of Dunne in favor of Minter.
“It had to do with his switch from thinking that wind was an important part of our energy future, to his focus on solar and small-scale hydro alone,” McKibben wrote in an email. “I’m a big fan of solar power (you should see my roof and yard) but we still have this thing in Vermont called winter, and even if it doesn’t get that cold any more, the sun still lies low on the horizon.”
“I don’t think these are the kinds of changes in position that should come once early voting is underway in a crucial election,” McKibben added.
Minter was quick to acknowledge her newest backer.
“I’m obviously honored to have Bill McKibben join my team and support my candidacy. He’s an extraordinary person,” she said. “I certainly believe that well-sited wind needs to be a part of the mix, as well as solar, biomass, hydro and every source we can, including innovation around storage.”
More backlash could be coming as environmental groups consider Dunne’s policy position. Lauren Hierl, political director of Vermont Conservation Voters, said the policy seems to be “a change in position from our understanding.” Hierl said the group is having “internal conversations” regarding an official response.
Meanwhile, Robb Kidd, the Vermont organizer for Sierra Club, said the group’s directors have not yet determined if it will have an official response to Dunne’s policy but there are “obviously some concerns.”
“There’s chatter going on within us,” he said. “They’re not sure what the statement means.”
Paul Burns, executive director of Vermont Public Interest Research Group, said Dunne’s position is “not well thought out.” He said the group believes it to be a new position.
“It’s certainly a change from anything we understood his position to be before,” he said. “I think it’s a retreat from the state’s well-established clean energy goals and it’s a real disappointment, in that respect.”
Without wind, Burns said the state will not be able to meet its goal of having 90 percent of its power generated by renewable sources by 2050. Dunne’s position “demonstrates he doesn’t have a grasp of how it works,” according to Burns.
“I think this policy really demonstrates a lack of understanding of the regulatory process and renewable energy, generally,” he said. “The environmental impact of wind is very modest when compared to other potential sources of significant energy. You’re left wondering what exactly would he support for energy generation to meet the state’s goals. If not wind, then what? We’re certainly not going to get there with solar and small hydro.”
Rep. Tony Klein, D-East Montpelier, the chairman of the House Energy and Natural Resources Committee who is not seeking re-election, said the policy Dunne outlined Friday is a new position that voters were not aware of.
“He made some pretty negative comments about wind as a renewable resource and its impact on the environment. I don’t think I heard that before and I think it’s pretty clear that if you give localities veto power over anything you endanger what may well be in the state’s overall interest, whether it be energy policy, telephones, internet connections, interstate highways. So, I think that’s a huge policy change,” he said. “It’s one thing if a town and a landowner or a town and a landowner and a developer agree on their own they want to have a vote on their own. I don’t have any issue with that, but it’s another thing to have a state policy.”
Klein, who has endorsed Minter, said Dunne’s policy was outlined too late in the primary season, after many voters already cast their ballots. He speculated that the policy was intended to help Dunne secure support in the primary from voters who favor Galbraith.
“I think it’s a huge disservice to people who already voted for him who don’t agree with him,” Klein said. “What did he all of a sudden find out last week that would make him change his mind so drastically 10 days before the primary? One can only assume that he did it for political reasons — he made a calculated decision that he could get Galbraith voters to his side that would put him over the top. I think he miscalculated in that more people will walk away from his campaign.”
Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos said Monday that 15,000 people have requested absentee ballots and nearly 7,000 had already been returned.
On Monday, Dunne told the Vermont Press Bureau that he made “essentially the same statement” to WCAX in June that received little attention at the time. The position is not new, he said.
“To me, it’s a clarification, maybe with stronger language, but it’s a clarification of where I’ve been all along, which is that I felt that it was important to have more community involvement in the wind siting process,” Dunne said. “I felt that it was important for there to be a threshold, which was to have the town where the wind was going to be sited on an Australian ballot to vote affirmatively for the project to go forward.”
Dunne said he heard questions while campaigning last week that prompted him to clarify his position on wind projects.
“I think there is some concern about trust in this process, in general, which I feel is slowing down a lot of these projects. I felt it was important to share my position before we got any further into the election,” he said. “Unfortunately, people who have not heard me articulate it that way were taken by surprise. I certainly regret that.”
Dunne said the timing of his release Friday was the result of the questions he heard, not a political calculation.
“This is a campaign and throughout the process you clarify your positions more, at least one hopes, and you get people who assume something about you at one point and realize that wasn’t the case later. We’ve still got two debates to go. The major debates of the entire campaign,” he said.
If elected governor, Dunne said wind would continue to be part of the state’s renewable energy portfolio. “But I also believe we need to do it in a way that doesn’t divide people and we’re not going against the wishes of the community of where it’s based,” he said.
Dunne said he supports a statewide plan that identifies suitable sites for renewable energy projects.
“I’m going to be there reaching out to those communities and working with them and getting the right information there so we can move forward with these projects,” Dunne said.
Dunne spokeswoman Jessica Bassett told Seven Days that Dunne’s position “is in line with the Shumlin administration’s current practice.” On Monday, Shumlin sought to refute that assertion in a strongly worded statement.
The governor noted that he recently signed a renewable siting bill that seeks to offer local communities more influence in siting decisions but does not provide local communities with the authority to unilaterally scuttle projects.
“I would never have signed that legislation if it handed out veto power over renewables. We do not do that for any public works projects in our state. We certainly should not make an exception aimed at halting renewable energy projects at a time when the global scientific community is telling us just the opposite — climate change is real, it’s urgent, and we need to move aggressively on switching to clean energy from coal and fossil fuel generation,” Shumlin said.
Shumlin, in his statement, indicated that Dunne’s campaign is lying about how its position compares to his own.
“I am and will continue to be neutral in this primary. However, anyone who says they are in line with my position on renewables, and who then comes out for a veto on renewables, is not telling the truth,” the governor said.
Dunne said Monday he understood the administration’s policy to mean that projects would be pursued where the local communities were in favor of them.
“If I had that wrong, then that’s on me. But my understanding was that, in generally, the administration supported projects that had the approval of at least the town where the project was going to be sited,” he said.