The Addison County Regional Planning Commission is in a tight spot with its impending decision this Wednesday on whether to approve or reject Phase II of Vermont Gas’s Addison Pipeline project. It approved Phase I, from Chittenden County to Middlebury, based on the economic interests of those the pipeline will serve. But two committees within the commission have already panned Phase II based on the weaker arguments of meeting the public good, Act 250 and concerns over whether it met the long-term energy goals of the commission.
Even so, the commission is rightly hesitant to reject the project outright because it also agrees with the state’s goal to extend the pipeline to Rutland as soon as is reasonably feasible. That goal has become increasingly important as a measure to stem the potential loss of jobs in that region because of its comparatively high cost of fuel. Natural gas is currently about 50 percent cheaper than either propane or fuel oil.
In making its decision, the nut the ACRPC must crack is this: How vital is Phase II to get the pipeline extended to Rutland in a timely manner?
The answer to that question, from the perspective of Vermont Gas, is that it is crucial. Without Phase II, and the money they would get from the International Paper, extending the pipeline to Rutland would be a tenuous proposition that could take 10 years or longer; if indeed, it was ever deemed a profitable venture. Currently, if Phase II is constructed, Vermont Gas says it would use $45 million from that project to put toward the construction of the pipeline to Rutland; which, they say, could then be completed in five or six years.
That’s their side of the story.
Legitimate questions remain unanswered and being the antagonist that seeks those answers is a useful role ACRPC could play.
Of the questions the ACRPC might pose, none is more important than determining how quickly Vermont Gas could build the pipeline to Rutland — which is the highest public good of this project. When we asked that question of Vermont Gas, two years was the time it would take to physically build the pipeline from a point south of Middlebury to Rutland. That’s without getting any of the necessary permits, land easements and what are assuredly many hoops to jump through in such a process. Add those to the equation, said Vermont Gas spokesperson Steve Wark, and it will take another two years. That’s four years from the time the pipeline is completed a few miles south of Middlebury, slated for later this year or early 2015. That’s not far off what Vermont Gas is projecting the date could be if Phase II is approved. If pressed, maybe it could be done by 2018, but probably not a lot sooner, and even then the accelerated date might come at a slightly higher cost to ratepayers.
If Phase II is not allowed, the ACRPC should also ask, could the pipeline be extended to Rutland and is 10 years out a fair assessment or could it be done faster?
The ACRPC could also press another point crucial to the state: What’s the guarantee that Vermont Gas will extend the pipeline to Rutland within a specific time period, if Phase II is approved?
Currently, there is no quid-pro-quo. There is Vermont Gas System’s speculation that they will continue on to Rutland, but it’s not part of the Phase II deal.
We understand that Vermont Gas is a private company, and typically makes decisions to extend its pipelines based on financial return without any obligation to the state. But Phase II is different. The pipeline crosses private land in Middlebury, Cornwall and Shoreham to serve an out-of-state commercial enterprise (the International Paper plant) for the primary purpose of boosting Vermont Gas Systems’ bottom line. That premise, by itself, should fail the public good test. Only if the project is combined with a pledge to continue the pipeline to Rutland within a set period of time should the PSB consider it a public good that serves Vermonters.
Furthermore, there is the matter of due compensation. Because this pipeline is not in the direct path to Rutland (but is an obvious detour for financial gain), it seems remiss not to adequately compensate those communities and landowners over which the pipeline will run. This is perhaps the most difficult argument to articulate, but a common sense of fairness might prompt Vermont Gas to advance the discussion on its own.
It’s also important to understand that the ACRPC has no jurisdiction in the matter. It is a party to the proceedings and has the option to comment, though it has no obligation to do so. The Public Service Board has full jurisdiction in the matter, while the Public Service Department represents the ratepayers and the public-at-large.
Even so, it’s also noteworthy that the PSB has become sensitized to the issue and appears more willing to weigh local concerns. That, and the unusual regional nature of Phase II, elevates the role the ADRPC could play. It’s an argument for being deliberate in its decision to approve or reject the project, even if that means postponing any decision until more of these questions, and others, are answered.
Angelo S. Lynn