Opinion: Plentiful energy aids economy and bumps land values

About the Vermont Gas pipeline and the dreaded “F” word — fracking:
1.      Fracking
Widely criticized “fracking” to increase oil and gas production is used worldwide. Its use in the U.S. has allowed our domestic production of oil to increase to where it accounts for about 50 percent of our needs.
Fracking, like any exploration or mining operation, can be done in a manner that minimizes the environmental impact. To assure that this is done requires strong environmental oversight. This in turn requires a strong government with a concerned citizenry. The U.S. and Canada and most of Europe meet these criteria. The other 50 percent of our oil comes from countries like Venezuela, Nigeria and the Middle East that have little regard for the environment and cannot even provide their people with basic human rights. To make matters worse most of them despise us. The next time you buy gasoline or fuel oil, remember that one-half of your money may go to support fracking and the other half goes to support the enemy.
It is true that Vermont Gas comes from Canada and some of our money goes there. Thirty percent of our electricity comes from Hydro Quebec and is much touted as part of Vermont’s renewable energy portfolio. Is paying our good friends to the north for natural gas any different than paying for electricity?
2.      Renewable energy
Everyone wants more renewable energy: wind power, hydropower and solar. This is a wonderful goal, but not easily obtained and has its own environmental problems. Wind power and solar power are heavily subsidized with your tax dollars. Wind power installation often results in extensive damage to the environment with the construction of mountain top roads and transmission lines. The manufacture of solar panels requires large amounts of electrical energy and significant use of chemicals. As a result most solar panels are manufactured in China where cheap coal fired electricity and lax environmental regulations reduce costs.
Hydropower is one of our oldest proven economical sources of renewable energy and is widely used. Its environmental impact is moderate providing you are not a salmon, Native American or a caribou. The attractive nature of hydropower is that within limits it is there when you need it.
Wind and solar power are intermittent sources of power. Solar only works when the sun shines. Wind power is subject to the variability of the wind, which makes its introduction to the electric power grid difficult. To compensate for the unpredictability of wind and solar, power companies are turning to the use of gas turbine generators, which can be quickly brought on line when needed. These turbines burn, you guessed it, natural gas. Increasing use of wind and solar may actually increase the burning of natural gas.
One of the benefits of natural gas is that it burns cleanly and easily meets environmental regulations. Unfortunately when natural gas is used to generate electricity in a turbine, the laws of thermodynamics limit its thermal efficiency to about 30 percent whereas natural gas burned in a home or industrial furnace to supply heat easily gives a thermal efficiency of 90 percent. In my opinion, burning gas to generate peak demand electricity is a waste of a valuable natural resource.
3.      Heat and the Vermont economy
Vermont industries require a lot of energy for heat. Not only to heat the buildings they occupy but for their manufacturing processes. Brick making, cheese making, brewing, chocolate making, paper making, casting foundries are a few examples. These industries are vital to the state’s economy and provide good paying jobs. Natural gas is the ideal energy source for this use. It burns with high efficiency, is versatile and clean and competitively priced. Homes in higher density housing areas near gas lines may also benefit from this heat source. Those Vermonters that live in rural areas unfortunately are stuck with wood, oil or propane.
4.      Safety
The transportation of any fuel has hazards associated with it. Tank trucks go off the road, railroad trains derail. Pipelines do fail but the incidents are rare compared to other forms of transportation. If the residents of Addison County want a cause to pursue, they should examine the potential for environmental disaster to Lake Champlain from the 300 crude oil tank cars per day that trundle literally down the shoreline of Lake Champlain. Not only a dangerous situation (remember Lac Megantic in Quebec) but an environmental disaster waiting to happen: The inadvertent dumping of thousands of gallons of crude oil in Lake Champlain would dwarf any environmental disaster that a pipeline carrying methane under the lake could possibly produce.
5.      Property values
The installation of highways, power lines, pipelines, wind turbines and solar arrays can and will affect property values. Determining the effect is highly subjective. In the case of a Vermont gas pipeline, however, we do have some history to look back on. In the mid 1960s the Franklin County Regional Planning and Development Commission was tasked with producing a Regional Development Plan. At the same time Vermont Gas was installing their gas pipeline through Franklin County to Burlington. The installation of the pipeline was for the most part a “non event.”
It was a non event for a number of reasons. Franklin County at the time was rural, agricultural and the economy was severely depressed. Interstate I-89 had just been completed to the border with Canada a few years before and was a much more contentious project than a little pipeline. Owners of the land the pipeline passed through were generally pleased with the compensation allowed by Vermont Gas and few complained.
I am embarrassed to say that the planning commission barely considered the pipeline in our Regional Plan. Why? Because those were the days of cheap energy. Gasoline was inexpensive and home heating oil was as I remember about 60 cents per gallon and people building new homes were installing electric heat. Unfortunately, those days are past. The following 40-plus years saw energy costs skyrocket and at the same time industries started moving into Franklin County’s industrial parks, most of them, taking advantage of natural gas. The economy of Franklin County improved dramatically and it now has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the state.
So what happened to land values? Overall they went up with the economy. Individually of course there were variations. Where the pipeline went through farmers’ cornfields and hayfields, which are still cornfields and hayfields, the benefit to the landowner aside from the original compensation was just the general increase in land values. For some landowners that were lucky enough to own land suitable for development, proximity to natural gas increased property values significantly.
Will land values change in Addison County as a result of the gas line? No one can really say for sure. Short-term land values probably won’t change much. In the long term all we can say, based on previous experience, is that a good economy increases land values.
William A. Mraz

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