Natural gas pipeline would strengthen area’s economy

A utility’s proposal to explore the possibility of extending a natural gas pipeline from Burlington to Vergennes and into Middlebury should be greeted with enthusiasm by residents, businesses and all who want to see greenhouse gases diminished. That’s because natural gas is less expensive than other fuel options, pollutes less, and reduces Vermonters reliance on foreign oil.
The price point is reason enough for most residents of Vergennes and Middlebury to want the pipeline hurried along. According to Don Gilbert, president of Vermont Gas Systems Inc., the utility that is eyeing a $60 million to $70 million plan to extend the pipeline to Middlebury, a typical homeowner could save about 37 percent off their annual conventional heating oil fuel bill or as much as 55 percent savings over propane or electricity. Put another way, the typical resident of a home now paying about $2,338 a year for 687 gallons of fuel oil (at $3.40 a gallon) would spend about $1,470 a year to heat the same-size house with natural gas — a savings of $868 per year. Plus, it’s a product that burns cleaner than fuel oil, thereby putting less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
The concerns are few.
First, a right-of-way of way must be chosen — most likely along the Route 7 corridor (buried three feet or more underground just to one side of the highway), or along the VELCO right of way. Second, at a cost of $1.5 million a mile for the pipeline, there’s the matter of financing. Of the three options — federal aid, state aid, or getting the Vermont Public Service Board to allow the utility to set aside a portion of its current receipts to pay for the pipeline expansion — the third option is obviously the one that should be pursued and promoted. That could jack up rates (making the above savings projections smaller), but it prevents subsidizing a corporate entity, which is only fair to competitors. Third, the pipeline could lead to sprawl along Route 7 or on the outskirts of towns, if towns permit the pipeline to have spurs at locations that are currently undeveloped — a concern that could easily be mitigated by careful town planning.
One other concern lies in the competition natural gas creates for local fuel dealers.
Because natural gas is plentiful in North America and because its current cost is so much less than other fuel sources, the expected penetration in communities such as Vergennes or Middlebury could exceed 50 percent of the homes and businesses. That would obviously present a hardship to those businesses, even though the service area for natural gas is limited by the distance a residence is from the pipeline. That leaves the more distant households from the pipeline to be served by fuel oil or existing sources, but significantly reduces the higher-profit customers in town centers. That’s the nature of our capitalistic system, but it’s certainly understandable why fuel businesses — and that industry — will be trying to fight the pipeline expansion at all costs (and why their opposition may be exaggerated in fact and fiction.)
On the whole, however, extending a natural gas pipeline into Vergennes and Middlebury — with the goal to eventually reach down to Pittsford and Rutland — can only be viewed as a boon to this area’s economic potential and viability. “Having energy options is important. The better our infrastructure, the better we can support our businesses, present and future,” says Robin Scheu, executive director of the Addison County Economic Development Corporation.
You can even imagine “what if” scenarios, as did Rep. Paul Ralston, D-Middlebury, when he speculated that Middlebury could someday host a small electricity generating power plant fueled by natural gas that, in turn, uses the “waste” heat to supply a five-acre, year-around greenhouse in town. That’s getting a little ahead of the current game plan, but it does illustrate the potential good the natural gas pipeline might spawn.

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