Opinion: Vermont Gas Systems not worthy of PSB approval

During this festive holiday season I had the displeasure of attending a most distressing meeting. It was a condemnation/easement rights hearing on a neighbor’s property. What a holiday gift for them. This was occurring not because they were delinquent on their taxes or a seizure for some crime, but because they refused to give the right of passage through their property to Vermont Gas for a gas transmission pipeline.
You may say yes, but they could just settle with Vermont Gas and be done. But as with others in the path of the pipeline as well as many Monkton residents and sympathetic organizations, it’s not quite as straightforward as that.
The question is, is this pipeline really for the public good as required by law? And is Vermont Gas competent to carry out this project? Many think not.
The Public Service Board and the Public Service Department thought so back in 2011 when Vermont Gas was granted the right to start extracting money from current ratepayers to pay for an expansion project — loosely defined at the time as “pipe looping” in the Burlington area — and the installation of a distribution pipe (read plastic and low pressure) from Shelburne 14 miles south to Vergennes and then on to Middlebury for around $65 million.
This now looks like one heck of a bargain in light of where we find Vermont Gas today, at $154 million and still no sign of gas for these towns after five years.
So what happened? Somewhere along the way VGS decided that they wanted to feed enormous amounts of gas over to New York and so the project morphed into a 43-mile high-pressure 12-inch steel gas transmission pipeline that was to slash its way across Chittenden and Addison counties. When New York saw the price continually rising they sensibly bailed. This transmission pipeline should have died with it but it didn’t.
Now we are left with a dilemma of an overcapacity, overpriced pipe project that is years behind schedule and way over budget. We should learn from the New York folks how to pull the plug. Instead the PSB and PSD seem to be incapable of seeing all the red flags thrown up that everyone one else sees.
Let’s summarize: VGS, constantly reorganizing and switching subcontractors as a way to solve all problems, is a company mired in contractor lawsuits, liens and drug abuse, fined by the PSB and unable to contain costs. Now there is even deeper cause for concern. A recently released PSD Gas Safety Engineer Report depicts a company with constant safety and welding violations who apparently can’t lay a pipe if they tried, witnessing them having to rip out hundreds of feet of pipe they damaged during installation in addition to having to re-lay pipe that was at the incorrect depth.
We are of course talking about a high-pressure 1,000 psi volatile gas pipeline, not your mother’s washing machine hookup here. How many red flags are needed?
Economists have a name for a project that is on the rocks such as this and it’s called the “sunk-cost fallacy” period. That is the tendency to stick with something that has already been invested in, even though all the signs point to it being a bad idea, and the inability to let it go but continue to throw good ratepayers’ money after bad.
Nobody appears to want to be the one to pull the plug. Well, the PSB has the opportunity right now to just revoke the Certificate of Public Good. The current construction period has ended and the so called 11-mile looping is complete. VGS has shown it is not competent to do this project. Let’s call it a day.
Ivor Hughes

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