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A law in Vermont makes fossil fuel company pay for damages from climate change


A new law in Vermont is setting the state up to take on some of the world's largest fossil fuel companies. State officials can now try to make major oil, gas and coal companies pay for some of the costs associated with climate change. Vermont Public's Abagael Giles reports it's the first time that any state has tried this approach.

ABAGAEL GILES, BYLINE: There's a steady stream of people coming in and out of the general store in Cambridge, Vt. You wouldn't know that almost a year ago, the store was heavily damaged during major floods. Ron Frey owns the store with his wife, Linda. He says they lost all of their refrigerators. So they told the community to come take their produce and meat.

RON FREY: If you don't take it, we're going to have to throw it away, so we'd much rather put it in your belly than put it in our dumpster.

GILES: What happened next really blew them away.

FREY: We had people in the community giving us money, just stopping by and -- I still get choked up about it. We have people in the community just stopping by and putting money down on the counter saying, here, this is for you guys.

GILES: He says the generosity was overwhelming, especially since many people in town lost their own homes and businesses. But even with the support, the costs were huge. The Freys had to replace their furnace, totally rewire the store and lost more than $35,000 in inventory. They weren't alone. Last summer's flooding was the worst in almost 100 years. It caused north of $1 billion in property damage across the state. Scientists say climate change is bringing more-frequent and severe flooding to Vermont. Warmer temperatures are fueling more extreme rainstorms. And the state's hollows and mountains make it particularly vulnerable. Anne Watson is a Democratic progressive state senator from Barre, which was devastated by the floods.

ANNE WATSON: We know that this event was made worse by climate change. That demands some work in thinking about who's responsible and, you know, how we can be appropriately getting some relief - financial relief.

GILES: To get that relief, lawmakers look to some of the world's biggest fossil fuel companies. They passed legislation modeled after the federal Superfund program, which makes companies pay for the pollution they caused while doing business. So Vermont will bill major fossil fuel producers to help pay for what climate change is costing the state, based on how much their products have contributed to the problem globally. The legislation earned support across party lines, but it also has critics, including Vermont's Governor Phil Scott, a Republican. He allowed the bill to become law without his signature last month but argued the state is too small to be the first to go after big international oil companies.

PHIL SCOTT: You know, we're struggling as a state financially. Last thing we need is to take on someone who has, to be blunt, much more financial resources than Vermont does.

GILES: In a statement, the American Petroleum Institute, a trade group for the oil and gas industry, condemned the law, calling it a punitive tax. Michael Gerrard is a professor of climate change law at Columbia Law School. He says Vermont's action could encourage other states that are considering similar laws, like California and New York.

MICHAEL GERRARD: Vermont wants to be the mouse that roared. This is the first such law that has been passed anywhere in the world, seeking to impose retroactive liability on fossil fuel companies for the impacts on climate change.

GILES: Gerrard thinks it's a strong legal argument, but it will likely be challenged in court. He says it could be years before Vermont actually sees any payment, but the state is sending a very strong message.

For NPR News, I'm Abagael Giles in Cambridge, Vt. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Abagael Giles
Abagael is a digital producer at VPR