Natural gas firm fights legislation

MONTPELIER — The state’s sole natural gas utility and a natural gas trucking company spoke out last week against bills aiming to limit the fossil fuel market, which they say would limit their ability to provide service to more Vermonters.
One of the bills, H.51, would ban new fossil fuel infrastructure with the aim of reducing the state’s reliance on fossil fuels and lowering greenhouse gas emissions. As Vermont does not have any oil pipelines, the bill targets natural gas.
The legislation lingered in committees for most of this legislative session. However, on Tuesday, the same day activists in a climate march arrived at the Statehouse to push for a fossil fuel infrastructure ban, lawmakers announced they would be holding a public hearing on the legislation later this month.
Don Rendall, CEO of Vermont Gas, told members of the House Energy and Technology Committee that Vermonters who heat with natural gas emit 300,000 fewer metric tons of carbon dioxide a year than if they were heating with propane or oil.
“Our infrastructure can and will play an important role in Vermont achieving its clean energy goals,” he said Thursday.
Vermont Gas has also been developing a program that allows customers to pay extra for “renewable attributes” of natural gas from methane generated by landfill in Canada.
Tom Murray, vice president at Vermont Gas, talked about the company’s plans to expand that program by using methane from farms and wastewater treatment plants in Vermont. He showed committee members a slide of a proposed green distribution line that would allow the utility to tap into a methane digester at Goodrich Farm, a 1,000 head dairy farm in Middlebury.
“I’m not sure what the rationale (is), you know, to send that message that you want to ban new fossil fuel infrastructure” to meet climate goals, he told the committee toward the end of his testimony.
But lawmakers and environmental activists pushing for the bill say they are concerned about natural gas’ methane emissions and impacts to communities where gas is extracted and piped through.
Those concerns were exacerbated by natural gas explosions at homes in northeastern Massachusetts in September last year, spurring Vermont’s Department of Public Service to call for increased scrutiny of the safety of Vermont Gas infrastructure.
Democratic leaders in the House have said they will be gauging support over the next few weeks for the fossil fuel infrastructure ban. Rep. Timothy Briglin, D-Thetford, chair of House Energy and Technology Committee, has said he will not move out bills that don’t have enough support to prevail on the House floor.
Rep. Mary Sullivan, D-Burlington, lead sponsor of H.51, said in an interview Thursday that the time has come to stop making “long-term investments into fossil fuel.” Sullivan and Julie Macuga, an organizer with non-profit 350Vermont, both expressed concerns over methane leaks.
Although methane — the main component of natural gas — breaks down quicker in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, it is far more efficient at trapping radiation.
“Even a minuscule amount of leakage at any point in the system” is bad, Macuga said Thursday.
Murray said during testimony that the utility monitors for and fixes methane leaks. He referenced a study by the Environmental Defense Fund that shows a low number of leaks in Burlington compared to other cities.
Rep. Scott Campbell, D-St. Johnsbury, asked where the company buys natural gas from. Murray said the utility purchases gas on the market but that they have plans to procure “responsibly produced” natural gas. Vermont Gas hooks into the TransCanada pipeline in Highgate.
The committee is also considering a bill, H.175, that would prohibit utilities from using eminent domain to procure land for fossil fuel infrastructure in new service territory.
Vermont Gas came under fire from activists for using eminent domain to secure land from some landowners and the town of Hinesburg to build its Addison County pipeline.
During testimony Thursday, April 11, Murray said that Vermont Gas had only used eminent domain “a few times” as a last resort in the past 25 years. But he added that taking that option away could be problematic for the utility down the line.
Rep. Mari Cordes, D-Lincoln, said she sponsored the bill because of her experience with Addison County residents who opposed the pipeline expansion. The bill’s unofficial title is the Nate Palmer bill after a Monkton couple who successfully convinced the company to reroute the pipeline away from their farm, she said.
Cordes added that, unless you’re wealthy, it’s “impossible to fight an eminent domain action.”
A third fossil fuel bill, H.214, that has been introduced this session would require the Public Utility Commission to consider the effects of leakage and groundwater contamination when determining whether to permit a natural gas facility.
The House Energy and Technology Committee will be holding a public hearing at 5 p.m. on April 23 in the Statehouse on all three fossil fuel infrastructure bills.

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