MIDDLEBURY — The Vermont Public Service Board on Monday gave its conditional approval to, and issued a Certificate of Public Good for, Vermont Gas Systems’ proposed 41-mile natural gas pipeline from Colchester to Middlebury and Vergennes.
The $86 million project could be delivering natural gas to businesses along Middlebury’s Exchange Street by late next year, followed by service to other areas of Middlebury and Vergennes, as well as pockets of consumers in Monkton, Ferrisburgh, New Haven, Bristol and East Middlebury.
The project has drawn praise from some who favor the currently lower price of natural gas and say it will spur business activity in the region. Others are opposed based on concerns about individual property rights, safety, and damage to the environment, particularly through drilling practices called “fracking.”
The PSB’s approval relates only to its “Phase One” plans. Vermont Gas has another application pending with the board for a Phase II project that would extend from Middlebury through Cornwall and Shoreham, under Lake Champlain to the International Paper Mill in Ticonderoga, N.Y. Ultimately, Vermont Gas wants to extend its pipeline into Rutland County.
In it’s 156-page decision issues late Monday afternoon, Dec. 23, the PSB listed a series of findings while laying out its rationale for issuing a Certificate of Public Good in spite of substantial opposition to the plan by environmentalists, town officials and property owners within the project route (see the entire decision at addisonindependent.com).
Jennifer Baker of Monkton was not pleased with the PSB’s decision.
“The PSB has dismissed the legitimate safety concerns of many residents along the route,” she said on Tuesday morning. “By quoting the safety standards, they show that they are confusing code with zoning. Just because something is built to a standard doesn’t mean that it’s sited correctly. This pipeline is too close to schools and many residences.”
Scores of people turned out at a Sept. 10 PSB hearing to speak against the project, based on safety, environmental and property rights concerns.
Middlebury resident Ross Conrad was among the many who spoke against the project during the past year.
“By law the PSB did not consider the impact of fracking when approving a Certificate of Public Good for the pipeline and ignored the obvious, that we are all connected and we can’t allow others to pollute the air, water and food we all share in this global economy without it coming back to haunt us,” Conrad said.
“This is just another example of policy makers and bureaucrats underestimating the environmental crisis while overestimating the ability of the economy to mitigate stagnant wages in the face of increasing costs of living,” he added. “I fail to see how building new permanent fossil fuel infrastructure will help Vermont reach its renewable energy goals. The approval of this pipeline appears to be a step backwards and evidence that our political and economic system is not up to the task before us.”
But the PSB decided the project should proceed.
“We find this expansion of natural gas service to Addison County will provide significant economic benefits to the state, can be accomplished without undue adverse environmental impacts, and will promote the general good of the state,” reads the decision, authored by PSB members James Volz (chairman), David Coen and John Burke.
“The evidence in this case persuades us that this expansion will create substantial benefits for the state of Vermont,” the decision continues. “Natural gas presently has a price advantage of more than 40 percent over either fuel oil or propane, so that once introduced, it is likely over time to displace the consumption of these more costly fossil fuels. Based on projections of customers switching to natural gas service, VGS anticipates that over $200 million in direct and indirect savings (including greenhouse gas emission benefits) will be realized over the next 20 years. These direct economic savings are far in excess of the estimated $86 million cost of the project. The project will also provide incremental tax revenue to towns along the route, thus increasing the direct economic benefits for those towns and the state. Overall, the project is expected to afford Vermonters in the new service areas lower energy costs than under the current fuel options and any presently known alternatives; thus, we conclude that the Project is needed.”
Vermont Gas officials touted the PSB’s decision.
“We are very pleased the Vermont Public Service Board’s thorough review of the project has found it to be in the public interest,” said Don Gilbert, president and CEO of Vermont Gas. “This decision will make it possible to extend the same economic and environmental benefits of natural gas service to more Vermonters in Addison County.”
The Phase 1 project will cut heating costs for consumers and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 25 percent, according to Vermont Gas officials.
Prospective local consumers of the natural gas weighed in on the decision.
“The availability of natural gas at our Middlebury cheese and whey facility will significantly lower our energy costs and increase the returns earned by the dairy farm families who own Cabot,” said Bob Wellington, senior vice president at Agri-Mark/Cabot Dairy Cooperative. “Natural gas service will also eliminate the current use of fuel oil being trucked in daily so it is a win-win for the environment as well. It is important to get this pipeline in place as soon as possible.”
Vergennes City Manager Mel Hawley also praised the PSB decision, and referred to a recent vote in which city residents backed the city council’s support for the pipeline.
“Vergennes made it clear on Dec. 10 that they want the benefits that Chittenden and Franklin counties have enjoyed from natural gas service,” said Hawley. “We have 1,135 dwelling units and about 200 businesses in Vergennes and almost all of them will have access to natural gas service. The only area that will not receive service in 2015 are two houses and one business at the remote north end of Comfort Hill. So other than these three properties, everyone else will have access to Vermont Gas.”
Gov. Peter Shumlin issued the following statement about the PSB decision: “The Vermont Public Service Board got it right. This project gives our businesses and industries, as well as residential homes, a fuel choice that is cleaner and cheaper than what many of them are currently using. That’s good for growing jobs and strengthening economic development in that region, just as it has been for Chittenden and Franklin counties for decades. I am very pleased with the board’s decision.”
The PSB decision includes several conditions that Vermont Gas will be required to meet, in connection with the project’s construction and implementation. The company will work with its regulators and other stakeholders to ensure these conditions are satisfied, according to Vermont Gas officials.
Monkton selectboard member John Phillips said he was not surprised that the Public Service Board granted approval for the project.
“It was expected all along,” Phillips said.
Phillips said he felt it was important that his town negotiated a Memorandum of Understanding with Vermont Gas last spring, so that the company could make changes to lessen the effect of the pipeline on residents and their properties, through which the lines will run.
For example, in the original proposal, the line was to run through a wooded area along Old Stage Road, requiring the felling of several maple trees. In the new version, the line will run along the existing VELCO right-of-way.
At the Palmer property, the proposed pipeline was moved from 120 feet to 160 feet of the residence, and will be put deeper into the ground, Phillips pointed out.
Some also wondered if the PSB released its order at a time — just before Christmas — designed to draw the least attention.
“The timing of their order on the day before Christmas Eve is as thoughtless and callous as VGS’s original filing right before Christmas last year,” Baker said.