Vermont Gas pipeline under fire again

MONTPELIER — The Conservation Law Foundation has filed an appeal that will take Vermont Gas Systems to the state’s highest court in a fight over a 41-mile natural gas pipeline that’s already in service.
In the appeal filed April 27, the conservation group is challenging the Public Service Board’s decision not to re-evaluate the pipeline’s permit.
Vermont Gas completed the pipeline extension to Addison County last month, but a CLF attorney says the case now is less about preventing the structure than holding the Public Service Board accountable to the law.
Sandra Levine, staff attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation, said the PSB improperly allowed Vermont Gas to build the pipeline under a permit that rests on assumptions that no longer hold true.
She said the law commands the Public Service Board to reopen the permit process, because the project has changed so dramatically since the time it was approved.
One of the assumptions underlying the 2013 permit was the cost. The pipeline has roughly doubled in price — now $165 million, up from $68 million — since it was proposed. Through an agreement between Vermont Gas and the state, ratepayers are on the hook for only $134 million.
Another assumption that’s been proven false is that Addison County businesses and residents needed access to energy they couldn’t get elsewhere, Levine said.
Today, cold-climate heat pumps are in common use, which they weren’t in 2013, CLF says. These devices have dramatically reduced the energy needed to heat a home, the group says, and they run on electricity rather than fossil fuels.
The cost of alternative fossil fuels has dropped dramatically, too, with the No. 2 heating oil that is common in Addison County homes costing about the same as natural gas.
Finally, compressed natural gas is now available to Addison County homes and businesses, effectively providing the same methane as the natural gas pipeline.
All these changes mean the permit ought to have been reconsidered at some point along the way, Levine said.
Her organization is appealing to the Supreme Court now, after the pipeline has been built, because the PSB took until recently to resolve the case. That was a lawsuit CLF brought against Vermont Gas in 2014 after the company first said cost estimates for the pipeline had increased to $121 million.
Vermont Gas spokeswoman Beth Parent said the pipeline went under a regulatory microscope.
“The project has been reviewed thoroughly by our regulators three times and each time was found to be a great investment for Addison County,” Parent said. “It will also bring a needed boost to the local economy and help businesses stay competitive.”

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