Vermont Gas pipeline
ADDISON COUNTY — On Dec. 9, 2016, the Vermont Supreme Court lifted a stay against Vermont Gas that allows the company to complete the last remaining 2,000-foot section of a 41-mile pipeline from Colchester into Middlebury. Justices of the court lifted the stay because they said they believed Vermont Gas would likely prevail in the case before the court that had prevented it from putting the pipe 30-50 feet below the surface of Geprags Park in Hinesburg via horizontal drilling that will not disrupt the park’s surface. A few months earlier, opponents of the pipeline and some Hinesburg residents had filed suit to prevent the pipeline from going through the community park.
Vermont Gas spokesperson Beth Parent reported at the time that with the stay removed, Vermont Gas would have the pipeline finished in 10 weeks, which would mean mid-to-late February 2017.
If that happens, it will complete an estimated $153.6 million project that was first approved by Vermont’s Public Service Board on Dec. 23, 2013, for with estimated price tag of $86.6 million.
What has happened in those ensuing three years is a modern tale of climate change activists opposing major infrastructure construction that would further the long-term consumption of fossil fuels. Activists such as Rising Tide, Just Power, Hands Across the Valley, Rutland Area Climate Coalition, Toxics Action Center and 350VT have consistently opposed the pipeline. Just this last year saw protesters chain themselves to machines used to lay the pipeline in Middlebury, stand in the way of earthmoving machines working on the pipeline in New Haven and disrupt meetings to the point where officials threatened to lock the public out of public meetings.
It has been, in short, a prolonged and nasty fight to complete the 41-mile pipeline that Vermont Gas says will serve between 3,000 and 4,000 new gas customers in the communities of Vergennes and Middlebury, as well as a few customers along the pipeline’s right of way.
Pipeline opponents have not only argued that the pipeline should not be built because it distributes a fossil fuel, but that the use of natural gas is no better for the environment than burning fuel oil, nor is it less expensive. Vermont Gas, on the other hand, has countered that natural gas dumps less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, that methane leakage is being reduced, and that the cost is roughly 20 percent less expensive than fuel oil on average (depending, of course, on the ups and downs of the energy market).
Another major point protestors used against the pipeline was the fact that project costs jumped twice during the course of construction beyond regulators’ expectations, and with Vermont Gas failing to report the projected increases in a timely manner.
And, mid-stream, there was a change in command at the head of Vermont Gas — Don Rendall took over as CEO of Vermont Gas from Don Gilbert about two years ago.
Adding fuel to the fire was an initial agreement with International Paper in Ticonderoga, N.Y., to build an offshoot pipeline from Middlebury through Cornwall and Shoreham, under Lake Champlain to the New York paper mill — an offshoot that would have initially helped fund the pipeline’s expansion south to Middlebury. The spur line was later cancelled. In the meantime, Vermont had to work hard through 2015 and into 2016 to get easements from property owners along the pipeline route. It got the last four in 2016.
Proponents of the pipeline included many larger businesses in Middlebury, including the Agri-Mark, suggesting at one point that the cheese plant would save a couple million dollars per year in fuel savings. The Chamber of Commerce and business groups were also generally in favor of having another fuel option in the town saying that the increased competition among energy sources would keep prices lower for consumers and business.