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Lawmakers discuss pipeline regulation

WHITING  — Monday’s Legislative Breakfast in Whiting drew several Cornwall residents who urged lawmakers to slow down or suspend a Public Service Board review of Vermont Gas Systems’s proposed “Phase II” natural gas pipeline. The $70 million project is designed to deliver natural gas from Middlebury to the International Paper mill in Ticonderoga, N.Y.
“What else can we do when we feel completely unheard, run over and bullied,” said Cornwall resident Mary Martin, one of six Cornwall property owners whose land would be bisected by the Phase II pipeline.
The Cornwall selectboard has served notice it will oppose the pipeline, a position reflected by a recent townwide survey. Cornwall residents have criticized the project for its possible impacts on property rights, for jeopardizing the safety of nearby homeowners and out of environmental concerns over the use of hydraulic fracturing to extract natural gas from the ground.
Shoreham resident Norton Latourelle echoed Martin’s concern. Shoreham is another community — along with a portion of Middlebury — that would be affected by the Phase II pipeline plan.
“What we face is the image that (the Phase II pipeline) is a ‘done deal,’” Latourelle said. “We’re asking for help from all of our legislators to lead us.”
Lawmakers said their powers are limited in influencing the review process for the project, which will be done by the Vermont Public Service Board. The PSB has already issued a Certificate of Public Good for Vermont Gas’s Phase I pipeline proposal that is slated to run from Colchester to Middlebury and Vergennes.
“The PSB process … is a quasi-judicial process,” said Sen. Chris Bray, D-New Haven.
He explained that the PSB does not operate by referendum but through an informal town meeting-style process where parties come to a decision after debate.
“Although citizen input is taken, really what drives the process is expert testimony that comes from parties that have legal status in the proceedings,” he said.
Bray said that he and Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Addison, last year introduced an amendment aimed at slowing the PSB review and making towns affected by an application automatic “interveners” in the process. That Bray/Ayer amendment was stripped from the legislation in conference committee, according to Bray.
There is another bill in play this year that would change the way that towns and citizens participate in PSB proceedings to “try and make them more open and accessible rather than turning them into a courtroom proceeding with experts on both sides being brought forward,” Bray said.
He conceded the new legislation, if successful, would not affect the Phase II project because the application has already been filed.
Legislators, Bray noted, often say that they cannot become involved in matters under the PSB’s jurisdiction. But he added that it was the Legislature that created the PSB, “so it is ultimately our responsibility to mend the way it works in order to make sure it is fair to all citizens and towns.”
Vermont Gas is hoping to finance its pipeline in part through its System Expansion Reliability Fund. That fund, established with legislative permission in 2011, allows Vermont Gas to occasionally bank money that would otherwise be shaved off of customers’ rates when there are declines in wholesale natural gas costs. Officials project the reliability fund will accrue to $124 million within 20 years, of which $54 million has been designated for the Phase I project.
Rep. Willem Jewett, D-Ripton, said he continues to have some concerns about the Phase II project, which he has dubbed “the Ticonderoga wander.” Vermont Gas has touted Phase II — to be entirely underwritten by International Paper — as a way of helping the utility pay for extending its pipeline further south to Rutland County and eventually connect with domestic natural gas reserves in New York State.
“It is a funding scheme,” Jewett said of Phase II.
Salisbury resident Heidi Willis said that rather than investing tens of millions of dollars in natural gas as a “bridge” fuel to renewables, that money should be spent on developing green energy and fighting climate change.
“We just don’t have the time,” Willis said of investing in natural gas. “We are in an emergency situation, and we should see it that way.
Jewett has asked the Vermont Department of Public Safety to develop a more rigorous set of natural gas pipeline safety standards for the state than the basic federal requirements.
“We ought to have a very robust set of safety requirements,” Jewett said.
He added that based on the political realities within the Statehouse, a legislative effort to stop the Phase II pipeline would likely fail.
“We aren’t going to round up many votes (to stop the pipeline),” Jewett said. “It’s an emotionally felt thing here, but across the state, you can’t pass such a thing.”
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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