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Opinion: Vermont Gas CEO failed to acknowledge many gaffes

In the recent Community Forum piece on Vermont Gas (Addison Independent, Aug. 22), CEO Don Rendall asks us to not overlook the benefits of gas. While repeating the claim that gas is a cleaner choice, Rendall ignores several recent studies that find that methane leakage in the fracked gas supply chain results in a fuel that is dirtier than coal with regard to greenhouse gas emissions.
He also doesn’t tell us about is all the harm and damage Vermont Gas Systems (VGS) is doing. VGS has displayed embarrassing incompetence throughout the pipeline construction project and their informal approach to managing such a complex project has resulted in company oversight that is inconstant with leading practices for a project of this size and complexity.
For months VGS’s mantra was “on time and on budget,” despite the fact that the whole project is way over budget and the original cost estimate submitted by the primary contractor in 2012 for $57 million has ballooned, and more cost increases can be expected in the future.
VGS is trying to blame its delays and resulting cost increases on protesters and residents of Hinesburg, who oppose the easement through Geprags Park. In reality, VGS’s construction delays are being caused by VGS’s contractors’ slow work. Rendall said recently that the company had completed “several miles” of transmission line. VGS is supposed to have complete 30 plus miles by November. If it’s only finished “several” since beginning “active construction” in June, how are they going to finish on time?
Since the beginning of the project VGS has been causing its own delays: they delayed telling the truth about its cost increases to regulators. VGS didn’t have a lease in place for its pipe yard when it was supposed to, so its first contractor could get started, nor did they have a contract signed with this contractor. After VGS delayed signing with the contractor multiple times, they started fighting. VGS fired the company which is now suing VGS and has a lien on the pipeline. VGS didn’t have a new contractor in place to replace the fired company and it took VGS over seven months to get a new contractor in place.
Meanwhile, VGS’s horizontal directional drilling was problematic, and they didn’t have an approved construction quality assurance program in place. As a result, the company had to stop work until they got their act together. The whole time that VGS was having these problems the company was trying to pin the blame for its delays on landowners.
VGS also delayed signing their agreement with Hinesburg for more than a year, didn’t apply for eminent domain until the last minute, and then got itself into an agreement that violated the Open Meeting Law and that is inconsistent with Supreme Court precedent. The fact that people have pointed this out and it has been covered in the press is no one’s fault but VGS’s.
VGS has been claiming in Middlebury and Vergennes that they aren’t going to raise rates. Soon thereafter, VGS announced publicly that the company was requesting a three plus percent rate decrease. The company didn’t mention that the decrease was an average over all customer classes — residential customers would see a much smaller decrease if the Public Service Board approved using current customer funds to smooth rates for everyone.
VGS also did not mention that they would be instituting a 2.9 percent rate increase for residential customers in August. Rendall didn’t mention it when he was asked directly whether VGS was going to increase rates on “Vermont Edition” in July. He actually said that VGS did not intend to increase rates.
The bottom line is that it’s impossible to get a straight answer from VGS, and the Department of Public Service is not requiring VGS to be truthful or to give accurate price signals to current or future customers. This means that current gas customers who need to decide whether to replace a gas furnace or switch to renewables might decide to stick with gas thinking that it could be cheaper when in fact it would be better financially to switch to renewables.
It also means that people in Middlebury and Vergennes may be signing commitments to switch to natural gas because they think that they are going to save money when that’s probably not the case. Some people may be delaying the purchase of fuel for the upcoming heating season because they think the pipeline will be built in time for this coming winter.
Oil prices are starting to rise again and both gas and other fuels may go up further between now and late fall. In other words, anyone who trusted what they heard from VGS may be sorely disappointed and take a serious financial hit.
Alice Eckles
Ross Conrad
Middlebury

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