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Politically thinking: Gas pipeline debate will be lively

In July, Vermont Gas Systems announced it had hired engineers to plan an expansion of the VGS system from Chittenden County south to Middlebury, and that it would be applying late this year for a certificate of public good for the project from the Public Service Board. Last week, VGS announced that International Paper would finance an extension of the project to the IP plant in Ticonderoga, N.Y., including a pipeline running under Lake Champlain. VGS eventually wants to extend its system all the way south to Rutland.
The PSB’s consideration of this project could turn out to be one of the most politically contentious issues involving Addison County in some time. Manufacturing businesses in Middlebury and Rutland that are heavy energy users are strong supporters of the project. With the cost of natural gas considerably lower than heating oil or propane that produces an equivalent amount of energy, businesses in the Exchange Street area of Middlebury would see substantial reductions in their operating costs if they were connected to the VGS system. For this reason, the Shumlin Administration is a strong supporter of the VGS project, seeing it as providing substantial economic development benefits to Middlebury, and eventually to Rutland.
Although VGS’ emphasis has been primarily on industrial users, they also plan to serve homeowners in densely populated areas such as the village section of Middlebury. Natural gas companies in other New England states claim that, even after taking into account the up-front costs of converting home heating systems from fuel oil to natural gas, homeowners would see a payback in reduced energy costs in just a few years. The gas companies also note that a typical home converting from oil to gas will see a reduction in its carbon dioxide emissions of between 30 and 50 percent.
Opposition to the VGS project will come from a variety of individuals and organizations. Landowners whose property will be crossed by the pipeline may resist placement of the line on their land, or may demand higher compensation than VGS is prepared to offer. Although the line from Chittenden County to Middlebury could use existing utility or rail rights-of-way for much of the route, considerably more private land would have to be crossed to get from Middlebury to Ticonderoga.
Environmentalists are likely to oppose the project from several perspectives. Advocates for Lake Champlain will be concerned that digging up the bottom of the lake to install the pipeline could release phosphorus, the primary food source for the blue-green algae that have created problems on the lake for many years. Other environmentalists will want to know where VGS plans to source the gas it will deliver through the new pipeline, in particular whether the gas will be produced using the “fracking” method.
Other objections to the project will be based on economic grounds. Advocates of competition in Vermont’s energy industry will be concerned that a larger VGS, which is owned by Gaz Metro, the Quebec-based corporate parent of Green Mountain Power, which recently purchased CVPS, will lead to a greater concentration of control over Vermont’s energy supply in one Canadian firm. Others will want to ensure that International Paper, and not VGS ratepayers, does indeed cover the full cost of the extension to Ticonderoga.
Finally, following criticism of its role defending the GMP/CVPS merger and some of the large-scale wind projects in the Northeast Kingdom, the Shumlin Administration will need to demonstrate that its Public Service Department can act as a truly independent advocate for the general public in evaluating the VGS proposal.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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