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Middlebury selectmen endorse natural gas pipeline

MIDDLEBURY — A majority of the Middlebury selectboard on Tuesday threw its enthusiastic support behind the proposed extension of a natural gas pipeline into town, citing the need for a cheaper fuel source to both reduce residents’ heating bills and boost local businesses.
The board, by a 6-1 tally, endorsed a position letter (read the letter here) enumerating what it sees as the economic advantages of having access to natural gas, an energy source that is currently more than 40-percent cheaper than fuel oil.
Board members also conveyed their sentiments on Tuesday to Louise Porter, special counsel to the Vermont Department of Public Service. She is seeking feedback to represent interested parties’ viewpoints during what will be a lengthy state review of Vermont Gas Systems’ proposal to extend its pipeline roughly 42 miles south from Colchester into Middlebury and Vergennes next year and into 2015. The Vermont Public Service Board has begun its scrutiny of that $70 million project. At the same time, Vermont Gas is planning a separate pipeline segment (Phase II) that would extend from Middlebury to the International Paper mill in Ticonderoga, N.Y.
Both project phases have accumulated their share of fans and detractors.
Proponents point to the potential for major economic benefits, including an estimated $200 million in fuel bill savings over 20 years for prospective new customers in Middlebury and Vergennes. Company officials have estimated an annual savings of $1,200-$2,000 per home, and much more for large industries. The Agri-Mark/Cabot cheese plant is estimating annual energy savings of $3 million, while Vermont Hard Cider and Otter Creek Brewing are also figuring major reductions. Middlebury College President Ron Liebowitz last week issued a statement favoring the pipeline and the economic and environmental benefits the pipeline could bring to the county’s largest employer.
Meanwhile, critics of the proposed pipeline extension have also been very vocal. Landowners through whose property the pipeline would flow are concerned about the extent to which the infrastructure would affect their property rights and pose potential safety hazards. Environmentalists point to the prospect of fracked, Canadian gas being broadly used in Vermont, a state that has banned that method of extracting natural gas within its boundaries. And opponents have also been concerned that expanding use of the cheaper fuel source would further delay the state’s inevitable conversion to green, renewable energy.
The Middlebury selectboard had, on two previous occasions (May 10, 2011, and Dec. 18, 2012), signaled its support for a natural gas project. But the public comments and written statement it issued on Tuesday were its most emphatic, to date.
Selectman Nick Artim told Porter that he has spoken with many Middlebury residents about the pipeline project since it was first floated a few years ago.
“Without a doubt, those in favor of it far outnumber those who are against it,” he said.
Artim cited Agri-Mark/Cabot as a company that would particularly benefit from access to natural gas in order to reduce costs in competing with larger cheese makers in Wisconsin and other parts of the country. He noted Cabot’s 115 local jobs and its purchase of milk from area farms.
“We are hoping to draw other high quality companies … and they all say that having natural gas is a huge benefit to their ability to remain competitive,” Artim said.
Artim said Middlebury schools figure to save a combined $300,000 per year on fuel, while Porter Hospital could bank on seeing a substantial reduction in its current $1 million annual fuel bill.
Industries that cannot remain competitive in Middlebury might leave, according to Artim, thereby reducing the town’s grand list and its capacity to generate property tax revenues to maintain quality police, public works and social services.
While he acknowledged safety concerns about natural gas, Artim said he believes there are more inherent dangers with the transport of fuel by tanker trucks.
“That risk (of tanker truck mishaps) is greater than that pipe in the ground that’s professionally managed,” Artim said.
Selectman Craig Bingham acknowledged some residents’ concerns over potential safety and environmental impacts of extracting natural gas and conveying it through a pipeline. But he said that in his opinion, the benefits outweigh the potential negatives.
“We have competing interests that we have to weigh and when it comes down to it, we’re called upon to make a call,” Bingham said.
“In the end, I believe this pipeline can be built safely and can be built in such a way that organic farmers won’t be impacted negatively,” Bingham said.
“There are many people who will be impacted positively by lowering their energy costs through the use of natural gas,” he added. “There are plenty of people in this town who have negative feelings about the use of natural gas as well. But I stand by our decision last December about the pipeline. I think that on the whole, it can be built in such a manner that is safe and provides much needed energy to our town.”
Selectwoman Susan Shashok, who sits on a multi-town committee that is monitoring Vermont Gas’s proposed Phase II pipeline to International Paper, dissented from the rest of the board, citing too many unanswered questions, such as:
•  Whether there are any areas on the pipeline route with high concentrations of people, such as schools, licensed day care, licensed elder care, prisons or hospitals.
“Vermont Gas’s answer was that they do not know because they will only be identified after the pipeline is constructed,” Shashok said. “This answer runs counter to Vermont Gas’s assurances to the public that they are interested in feedback on any areas of concern and are willing to consider adjusting the pipeline route if needed.”
•  How Vermont Gas arrived at the estimate that the pipeline would save Addison County customers $20 million over 20 years. Shashok said she has been told that the supporting information is confidential.
“I don’t understand why this information is unavailable to the public and Addison County in particular,” Shashok said.
•  The extent to which any escaping gases from the pipeline could negatively impact a landowner’s organic certification for crops.
•  Whether the potential escape of gases would affect the town’s efforts to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.
•  The potential environmental impacts of drilling under Lake Champlain for the Phase II project.
“I want to acknowledge there is a strong group that is objecting to this and I don’t want their voice to be lost in this,” Shashok said.
But Selectboard Chairman Dean George said Middlebury residents should be given the choice to tap into natural gas. He said the resource could present vital savings to many local residents who are living below the poverty line as well as a tool in recruiting new businesses to replace the more than 300 “good paying manufacturing jobs” lost locally during the past decade.
“In conclusion, we believe that the greater economic vitality, reduced energy use, lower emissions, and public and private savings that the proposed Vermont Gas service will make possible constitute a public good,” reads the conclusion to the position letter signed by George and five of his six colleagues. “We therefore reaffirm the project and recommend its approval by the Public Service Board.”
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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