Local businesses fight Vermont Gas pipeline

MIDDLEBURY — A group of Champlain Valley business owners spoke out against the Addison Rutland Natural Gas Project at a press conference this past Tuesday at the Vermont Soap Works factory in Middlebury.
The speakers, led by Vermont Soap CEO Larry Plesant, urged businesses in Addison County not to use natural gas when it arrives here, possibly in 2014. The press conference was organized by the Vermont Public Interest Research Group (VPIRG), a lobbying firm that opposes the pipeline.
Plesant, who started Vermont Soap 21 years ago, said being environmentally conscious is more important than reaping profits.
“If all we were about was making money, we would have sold out to the large corporations years ago when they started knocking on our door,” Plesant said. “We want to be an example of a different way of doing business.”
Plesant said his company will not hook up to the natural gas pipeline. Instead, he has invested in hydropower generated from dams on the Otter Creek in Middlebury. Plesant estimated that he could initially save $1,000 per month in energy costs by switching to natural gas, but over the long term, he believes hydropower is the better bet.
“We looked at eight-year projections and realized that where we should be investing in the long term is hydropower we’re getting right around the block,” Plesant said.
Plesant said he expects Vermont Soap to remain profitable despite not using a potentially cheaper energy source.
“We’ve already made the decision in the short term to be less competitive,” Plesant said. “In the long term, the decision to run on hydropower will be more competitive.”
Tom Hughes, the head of Sunward Systems, a Shelburne company that installs solar hot water heaters, said that investing in natural gas detracts from the state’s energy goals.
“Vermont’s goal is to have 90 percent renewables by 2050,” Hughes said. “We’re on track, but the natural gas pipeline through Addison County threatens to take us off track.”
Plesant and Hughes were followed by Randy Martin of the Dewitt Blake Insurance Agency in Cornwall, Hinesburg building contractor Chuck Reiss and Hinesburg artist Rae Harrell, all of whom spoke of the dangers of fossil fuels.
“I’m not one of these left-wing liberals that jumps on every cause, but this is a cause I felt needed attention,” Martin said. “There’s absolutely no benefit for the majority of Vermonters — by far the greatest benefit is for Vermont Gas.”
Harrell spoke out against the controversial process of hydraulic fracturing, a process used to extract natural gas that environmentalists say is harmful to the environment. Vermont’s Legislature, knowing that there are no known reserves of natural gas in the state, banned hydraulic fracturing. The Addison Rutland Natural Gas Project would transport gas from Canada that was harvested using the process.
Behind the speakers stood a large placard that listed some 90 Vermont businesses that oppose the Addison Rutland Natural Gas Project.
“We urge the Public Service Board to deny the proposed fracked gas project a Certificate of Public Good,” the placard read.
The Public Service Board in December granted a Certificate of Public Good to the first phase of the project, which runs from Colchester to Middlebury. Construction for that section could begin as early as this summer. The board has yet to weigh in on Phase II of the project, which would extend the pipeline from Middlebury to the International Paper plant in Ticonderoga, N.Y.
While the speakers at the press conference Tuesday opposed the pipeline, one does not have to venture far to find a company that is counting down the days until the pipeline is completed. Just half a mile down the road from Vermont Soap is the Middlebury Agri-Mark plant, which produces Cabot dairy products. Doug DiMento, a spokesman for Agri-Mark, the parent company of Cabot, said the company welcomes the pipeline.
“We support the pipeline, we’ve supported it from the beginning,” DiMento said. “It will lower our operating costs from $2.5 million to $3 million a year once we invest capital to receive the energy source.”
DiMento said natural gas is less harmful to the environment than their current source, fuel oil. He added that the cheaper energy source will make Cabot more competitive in the national marketplace. These savings, in turn, will lead to higher returns for farmers who sell to Cabot.
“It will help us have a smaller carbon footprint, increase profits for farmers, sustain local businesses and local economies,” DiMento said.
Vermont Hard Cider, the manufacturer of the Woodchuck brand of hard ciders, is currently building a manufacturing plant just down the road from Vermont Soap and Agri-Mark. Vermont Hard Cider spokesman Nate Formalarie said the company currently uses propane for most of its energy, but is open to using natural gas in the future. 
“We’re building the building regardless of whether the pipeline comes through or not,” Formalarie said. “The way the system is set up at the new building, if the gas line were to come through, we would have the ability to hook up to it.”
Both the Addison County Chamber of Commerce and Addison County Regional Planning Commission have endorsed Phase I of the pipeline.
Vermont Gas on Tuesday afternoon issued a response to the VPIRG press conference.
“Vermont businesses want natural gas service. That is just a fact,” the release said. “It is hard to understand why VPIRG would claim otherwise.”
In the statement, Vermont Gas said that the Addison Rutland Natural Gas Project would provide economic and environmental benefits to 4,000 customers in Addison County and 13,000 customers in Rutland County.
Still, the speakers Tuesday said they hoped the Public Service Board would deny Vermont Gas a Certificate of Public Good for Phase II of the project.
Martin said he was not swayed by arguments that natural gas will be a cheap fuel source in the future. He said that once the United States begins to export natural gas, the price for domestic consumers will rise.
“Right now there are 57 applications in place for the export of natural gas,” Martin said. “Once that stuff gets global, we’re no longer going to have that cheap fuel.”

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