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Editorial: Bristol’s rocky road with Vermont Gas

When Vermont Gas laid out its plans to extend natural gas service to Middlebury, with offshoots to Vergennes and Bristol, it seemed like the natural order of how things would pan out. The state mandate to Vermont Gas, as a utility with a monopoly on natural gas transmission, is to extend natural gas to as many Vermonters as possible while not sending costs to its customers soaring.
Costs to build the pipeline, as we all know, shot up dramatically from the initial estimates; some due to miscalculations in forecasting, and some due to higher-than-expected cost increases in materials and labor that would have been hard to predict.
The other part of the story, however, is the growing recognition of the environmental harm caused by the fracking process to extract natural gas and its diminished value as a fuel with a lower carbon footprint. It’s comparable, but not significantly better. Its cost, however, is significantly cheaper than propane and is a bit less expensive than fuel oil; hence the reason some communities are still clamoring for it. The Bristol selectboard was acting on that reasoning when they voted to sign a contract with Vermont Gas to serve the Bristol village.
The selectboard, however, made grave errors by limiting the public process, and in voting to ram the permiting process through despite much public opposition.That lawsuits were filed and that Vermont Gas has put any initiative into Bristol on hold is the outcome of those misguided decisions.
Of course the Bristol community should have a full-throated discussion of whether they want Vermont Gas to serve the village residents; of course, such a decision should have gone through the Bristol Planning Commission for their review first, and of course the selectboard should not have rushed signing a preliminary permit with Vermont Gas even though Bristol residents were clamoring for more public hearings.
The result could be that Bristol residents will no longer be candidates for natural gas service. That will make many happy who place environmental concerns over the benefits of lower costs; and it may make a few businesses and residents less than pleased. Whatever. It won’t be the end of the world for Bristol either way.
Currently, there are no large industries in Bristol that would benefit from the lower cost of natural gas to the scale that, for example, AgriMark/Cabot benefits in Middlebury. And it’s unlikely homeowners or other small businesses will move elsewhere just because natural gas is not a fuel option; the savings is just not enough to prompt such a move on its own.
Neither is it in Vermont Gas Company’s interest to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in permitting and pipeline construction to a community where a good percentage are against them. Legal costs would be high, the frustration level sends up the blood pressure, and it’s bad public relations for the Vermont Gas brand. Hey, they can expand into areas that want natural gas. If Bristol doesn’t, so be it.
And that’s the likely outcome. Still, the Bristol selectboard would do itself and the community a service to include a public discussion of the issue at Town Meeting (set aside 20 minutes or more) and at the end take a straw poll asking who’s in favor of the service and who’s against. That way the town can at least engage in the upcoming legal battles knowing where a majority of town residents stand.

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