Bristol selectboard to sign pact with Vt. Gas
BRISTOL — Natural gas service is coming to Bristol.
After months of intense discussion, the town selectboard on Monday night voted, 3-1, to pledge their signatures on a proposed license agreement with Vermont Gas Systems (VGS) as soon as the remaining contract kinks get worked out.
The decision surprised many of the 50 in attendance at the Holley Hall meeting, who had expected to continue a discussion about a proposed survey — or even a vote by residents — that would gauge town interest in signing up for natural gas service.
That discussion had, in fact, been scheduled first on Monday night’s agenda, but at the meeting’s opening, selectboard chair Peter Coffey moved to postpone it until the board had addressed another item: a motion pledging their signatures on the VGS agreement.
“If we vote to agree to the agreement, there’s no point in having the survey,” Coffey said.
To Wendy Wilson, a former member of the town Energy Committee and co-author of the survey, the move felt like a slap in the face.
“The takeaway from the April 30 meeting, as I recall, was that the selectboard wanted this survey to help inform how they would proceed with the Vermont Gas contract,” she told the Independent on Tuesday. “Clearly something changed. I was feeling pretty good about how things were working out with the selectboard until last night. Now I question their interest in representing a broad cross section of the people of Bristol.”
Vermont Gas last year finished its multi-year build out of the Addison Natural Gas Project — a pipeline to deliver gas from Colchester to Middlebury. It is already building a spur into Vergennes and has discussed extending service into Bristol.
Since the town’s Feb. 12 natural gas forum, discussion about the VGS project at selectboard meetings has been dominated by pipeline opponents — a fact resident Kevin Hanson and others hoped to change.
“It is becoming important for people that support natural gas to attend selectboard meetings,” Hanson wrote in a May 12 email to fellow Vermont Gas supporters. “The opposition, typically ranging from 15–20 people, far outweighs the 1–3 coming to support the project. They dwell on their social beliefs about natural gas with sensational testimony that has questionable validity. Their stance is that ‘no one’ wants natural gas and that the selectboard is just jamming this through.”
Fifteen of the 50 in attendance on Monday night spoke out in favor of the pipeline, nearly all of them citing a desire to reduce their energy bills.
“I want this to go through as fast as possible,” said Stan Livingston. “As I understand it, natural gas is quite a bit cheaper, up to 50 percent cheaper, and that’s going to help out a lot of people in the town of Bristol. For a few people in the town to try and stop this, in my opinion, is just wrong. You shouldn’t be asking everybody else to pay more because a few people are worried about it.”
It’s a sentiment pipeline opponents have failed to rebut effectively.
“Many in the town aren’t as interested in environmental impacts and don’t understand that long-term costs (averaged over 20 years) will likely be considerably lower by transitioning to efficiency and renewables rather than natural gas,” acknowledged Sally Burrell the day after the meeting. “And, of course, it infuriates me that the gas industry is getting away with artificially low gas pricing to encourage pipeline build out.”
The cost of the Addison Natural Gas Project has so far more than doubled from its originally promoted cost of $58 million to $165 million now. On April 23 the Vermont Supreme Court upheld a Public Utility Commission ruling that the cost overruns did not warrant a reconsideration of the company’s Certificate of Public Good, though it did not specify what portion of those cost overruns Vermont Gas should be allowed to recoup from customers.
The Bristol selectboard and pipeline supporters have for months claimed that a majority of Bristol’s residents would welcome natural gas service, but none have provided anything other than anecdotal evidence for their claims. Opponents, for the most part unconvinced by those claims, had been hopeful that the proposed survey would provide the town with useful data.
That survey, however, is not dead yet.
In a second move that surprised many in attendance, the selectboard voted to move forward with the survey, though it wasn’t clear what purpose it would serve.
“Personally, I don’t see the point in having a survey,” said Coffey in a separate interview. “What are we going to do with it?”
Wilson also questioned the usefulness of the survey.
“We are no longer gathering information to inform the selectboard decision about the pipeline,” she said. “Knowing that the pipeline is essentially a done deal de-legitimizes the survey and makes it difficult — if not impossible — to get a representative cross section of the community to take it. What’s the point of anyone taking the survey if the selectboard has already made their decision?”
Regardless, the decision was the selectboard’s, alone, to make. The state statutes clearly specify that utility-related business, like the contract with Vermont Gas, shall be conducted at the sole discretion of town selectboards.
On Monday night, Bristol’s selectboard performed their duty as charged.
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].
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