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Pressed by critics, Gov. Shumlin defends natural gas pipeline

MIDDLEBURY — Addison County residents welcomed Gov. Peter Shumlin to Middlebury American Legion Post 27 on Monday with a rousing serenade to mark his 58th birthday.
But those birthday cheers quickly morphed into jeers, as opponents of the Addison-Rutland Natural Gas Project sharply criticized the governor for supporting Vermont Gas Systems’ proposed pipeline. It’s a plan that they said would lower their property values, bring potential environmental and safety concerns, and sidetrack Vermont from its stated goal of replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy.
“I think you have reached out to some high-level individuals and heard what they had to say,” Mary Martin, one of six Cornwall landowners that would be affected by “Phase II” of the proposed natural gas pipeline, told Shumlin during Monday’s legislative luncheon.
“(Natural gas) is not a bridge fuel; this is a pipe that will be in the ground for 80 years,” she said.
Shumlin supports the Addison-Rutland Natural Gas Project as a means of more quickly getting cheaper natural gas service from Chittenden and Franklin counties — where it has been available through Vermont Gas since the 1960s — to Rutland County. Vermont Gas has been touting natural gas as the cleanest of the fossil fuels and as being more than 50-percent cheaper than fuel oil and propane.
The company, owned by Gaz Métro of Canada, developed a two-phased, multi-million-dollar proposal to extend its pipeline into Addison County. The first phase, which has already been green-lighted by the Vermont Public Service Board, calls for a pipeline segment from Colchester to Middlebury.
Phase II, currently being reviewed by the PSB, calls for a pipeline spur from Middlebury, through Cornwall and Shoreham, then under Lake Champlain to the International Paper mill in Ticonderoga, N.Y. Vermont Gas officials contend extending the pipeline to International Paper would save Vermonters $45 million of the costs of delivering natural gas to Rutland by 2020, which company officials contend is 15 years sooner than without the Phase II project.
“I know that we will not engage any kind of significant energy project in Vermont without a vigorous debate,” Shumlin said. “I think reasonable people can disagree on this one.”
Monkton residents in particular have protested the Phase I pipeline that would run through their community. Some affected residents have reported receiving letters warning of eminent domain proceedings against those who decline to come to the bargaining table to negotiate easements.
Maren Vasatka has been among those to receive such a letter from Vermont Gas.
“I am the face of Vermont Gas’s threat of eminent domain,” Vasatka said. “Vermont Gas calls me ‘land parcel 169,’ but I am Maren Vasatka, and I am a Monkton homeowner that has been asked to host this pipeline.”
Vasatka said she and her husband have been battling the pipeline for 16 months, with little success. While no stranger to natural gas, she expressed frustration with the current review process and what she said has been a lack of information from Vermont Gas.
“They haven’t been able to answer our questions,” she said.
“This is a large Canadian corporation that is taking advantage of Americans and Vermonters,” she added. “Mr. Governor, is this your idea of ‘right’ for your state?”
Shumlin said he believes natural gas makes sense within the context of Vermont’s energy goals, which include an objective of deriving 90 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2050. More residents should have access to natural gas as the transition to 2015 unfolds, according to Shumlin.
“It makes good climate change, environmental sense to move from dirty oil that I and many other Vermonters burn in their heating systems in their homes and dirty oil that industry burns to power their jobs, to a cleaner fossil fuel that is indisputably natural gas,” he said.
The governor acknowledged criticism of hydraulic fracturing, the process by which natural gas is extracted from pockets beneath the ground. But he said that same process is already employed to extract gasoline used to fuel vehicles.
“We can argue about how pure we’re going to be as we get off (fossil fuels), but I would argue that if you can move to a system that gets off dirty oil and moves to the least of the polluting fossil fuels, and at the same time save Vermonters hundreds of millions of dollars … I say that’s the right decision to make,” Shumlin said. “It will help Vermonters keep money in their pockets, it will grow jobs and it will reduce our fossil footprint.”
PUBLIC SERVICE BOARD
He advised people with grievances against the pipeline projects to make themselves heard through the Public Service Board review process. The PSB has quasi-judicial licensing and regulatory responsibilities over electric utilities, natural gas companies, telecommunications companies, cable television systems and water companies.
“I understand that these debates are emotional and that you are viewing this from where you sit,” Shumlin told the crowd. “If the gas line is running through your farm or backyard, you don’t feel that that’s fair. All I’ll say is, of the choices, if you were to ask me, ‘Would you like to have an electric transmission line run through your farm or a buried natural gas pipeline … I personally would take the Vermont Gas pipeline.”
Addison County residents have also had a lot of experience with electric transmission line projects during the past decade. It was on Jan. 28, 2005, that the PSB gave the go-ahead for the Vermont Electric Power Co.’s Northwest Reliability Project, which involved, among other things, the construction of a new 35.5-mile, 345 kV transmission line from West Rutland to New Haven, parallel to VELCO’s smaller, existing 115 kV transmission line passing through West Rutland, Proctor, Pittsford, Brandon, Leicester, Salisbury, Middlebury and New Haven.
Some residents on Monday said they felt powerless to affect the pipeline project.
“A year ago, my husband and I found out this pipeline was coming through our property,” Monkton resident Jane Palmer said. “We asked what we needed to do. We reached out to our selectboard, our legislators, and no one really wanted to help us.”
Palmer explained that her family is among those who decided to intervene in the PSB review process.
“My feeling is, ‘What is the future of democracy if what the people feel is not being dealt with?’” she said. “What will it take for our public officials to start reflecting our views, instead of what they think is the right thing for Vermonters?”
Shumlin replied the pipeline projects have their share of detractors and supporters, and that if the plans were overwhelmingly panned, they would be rejected by the PSB. Shumlin acknowledged opposing a proposed Champlain pipeline project that was pitched to pass through Putney when he was a selectman of that town during the late 1980s. He said he opposed that plan because the company in question was “not reputable,” nor adequately financed to do the job.
He argued the current pipeline proposal through Addison County is different.
“I’m a firm believer that this gas pipeline makes sense; that this part of the state is economically challenged because you don’t have an interstate and you don’t have the kind of transportation infrastructure that we have on the east side, and there are two things we can do to help grow jobs and economic opportunities on the west side, from Rutland all the way up: One is high-speed rail, which we’re working on; and the other is natural gas, the same natural gas that Franklin and Chittenden counties — which are prospering right now — currently enjoy.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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