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Editorial: Phase II and the public good

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Posted on March 10, 2014 |
By Angelo S. Lynn



If Vermont Gas Systems thinks it has had a rocky time with Phase I of the Addison County pipeline project, running from Colchester to Middlebury, they might want to reconsider their strategy for the next leg of the project. With Phase II, it’s going to get much worse.

Landowners along the proposed gas line route in Phase II, running through Cornwall and Shoreham to Ticonderoga, N.Y., have had ample time to prepare for battle and are privy to the tactics used by Vermont Gas. They are, as the saying goes, loaded for bear.

It is also not helping Vermont Gas Systems’ case that their tactics to get right-of-way easements from landowners are less than desirable. That has made landowners along the proposed pipeline route for Phase II wary and in tune with their legal rights as individuals and towns.

There is also a significant difference between the two projects. Phase I had a solid argument of serving the public good. Bringing a cheaper and cleaner fuel to residents and businesses in Addison, and eventually, Rutland counties meets that test, and the route to get there was basically the most practical and straightforward.

That is not the case with Phase II. The state’s objective in extending the pipeline to Rutland is to provide a cheaper fuel to stabilize existing businesses, industries and residences in that economically challenged area. The economics behind the public good of that endeavor is solid. The price of propane and fuel oil is currently running about 40 to 60 percent higher than natural gas. If Middlebury’s mid-sized Agri-Mark plant can save $2.5 million to $3 million a year in fuel costs with the switch to natural gas, there will be many similar businesses in the Rutland area that can also save similar amounts. That’s a huge incentive to stay in a place, or leave if the time to get lower cost fuel there is too long. Ten years, after all, could amount to a $30 million difference in fuel costs to a business.

Time, therefore, is of the essence. If Vermont Gas must first go east to west through Cornwall and Shoreham to hook up IP, and then head back east before it can turn south to Rutland, that adds years of delay to its effort to reach Rutland. And reaching Rutland, not enriching Vermont Gas or IP, is the state’s objective and the public good it hopes to serve.

It is less than honest for the state to acquiesce to Vermont Gas Systems’ argument that the fastest way for it to serve Rutland is to detour over to New York and back. Admittedly, that may be the fastest way Vermont Gas can afford to get to Rutland under its current plan, but it is not the fastest way to build a pipeline between two points — and this route would negatively affect a lot more people.

To that end, the Public Service Board, the Department of Public Service and state policymakers should take a few moments to reconsider what truly is in the best interests of the state, and are there other ways that thinking outside the current box could encourage a better solution than running roughshod over Cornwall’s and Shoreham’s concerns.

 It could be that subtle policy changes could pave the way for Vermont Gas to head straight south to Rutland. Surely that should be carefully considered and made a policy priority, if possible.

Unfortunately, state leaders are not fully engaged in the controversy, largely because Vermont Gas has been a good corporate citizen in Franklin and Chittenden counties and state officials had expected the same enthusiastic reception in Addison County.

It’s not so and it’s time state leaders took notice.

What’s markedly different about Phase II is the chosen route to IP is a financial convenience to Vermont Gas that has no greater public good than to enrich the company through a lucrative contract with IP. What is also different about the project is that landowners are almost unanimously against it and are mounting legal challenges. Significant legal delays add costs, which will be passed onto ratepayers. It’s in the public’s interest to avoid such costs.

We would hope state leaders would avert this oncoming train wreck by reassessing the public good of the Phase II project, and convincing Vermont Gas and its parent company, Gaz Metro, that the best road to Rutland is due south from Middlebury. That might happen if the PSD made a strong case against a public good certificate and the PSB listened.

The state might also strongly encourage all pertinent partners that the route from Middlebury to Rutland should hone close to the Route 7 corridor whenever possible (to avoid right-of-way problems with landowners) or to work with the right-of-way utility corridor owned by VELCO.

It is absurd that Vermont Gas has to create an entirely new right-of-way corridor (an expensive and time-consuming process), when two others already exist and any other route would go over private land to the great consternation of those citizens and landowners.

Oddly, the state acts as if its hands are tied and that no other options are possible other than following Vermont Gas’ preferred proposal. Rather, it demonstrates a lack of political will to seek a more creative solution that more closely fulfills the public good.

Angelo S. Lynn

 

 

 

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