February 21, 2020

Dozens protest gas pipeline at board’s office

Public Service Board to reconsider project in summer

By John Herrick

For Vermont Digger

Residents from across the state traveled to Montpelier last week to ask the Public Service Board to revoke Vermont Gas’ state permit to continue construction of a natural gas pipeline through Addison County.

About three dozen pipeline protesters crowded the hall and filled the hearing room at the Public Service Board’s offices, carrying posters and wearing T-shirts expressing their opposition to the project.

“If this pipeline goes, it passes through our neighbors’ yards,” said Patricia Heather-Lea of Bristol, who opposed the pipeline. “My heart also goes out to the source of where the fracked gas comes from.”

The Public Service Board approved Vermont Gas’ 41-mile pipeline extension from Colchester south to Middlebury on Dec. 23, 2013. But since then, much has changed. The cost to build the project has swelled 77 percent from $86.6 million to $153.6 million.

The Vermont Public Service Board will now consider whether the project should go forward. Following a 40.5 percent cost increase on July 1, regulators let Vermont Gas move ahead with the pipeline. The company then announced another 26.2 percent cost increase on Dec. 19. Regulators will decide whether the project is a good deal for ratepayers this summer, possibly as early as June.

Construction on Phase 1 began last summer. Vermont Gas set up a staging area in Williston in the spring.

The company says the benefits of the project outweigh the costs. But environmental groups say cost-competitive alternatives like heat pumps have since come on the market. And consumer advocates say the project will increase heating bills too much.

Vermont Gas Systems says the project will deliver natural gas to between 3,000 and 4,000 new customers in Addison County. If all of those customers switch from fuel oil to natural gas, they will save about $174 million on energy costs over the next 20 years, the company says. Vermont Gas also estimates the pipeline will create an additional $48 million in short-term construction wages, $4 million in state tax revenue and the equivalent of $27 million worth of greenhouse gas reductions (environmental groups question whether the greenhouse gas estimate fully accounts for methane emissions).

Pipeline opponents say the cost of the project to current customers in Chittenden and Franklin counties is too high.

“It doesn’t make any sense,” said Jim Dumont, an attorney from Bristol representing AARP. “The economics were bad to begin with and now they are really bad.”

The company says the additional project costs would lead to a 10.2 percent increase in gas prices for current customers as soon as November. It will take at least 30 years for Addison County customers to begin paying back current customers in Chittenden and Franklin counties, according to regulators.

Existing ratepayers will receive some benefits, including enhanced service reliability, greenhouse gas reductions and economies of scale, according to the Public Service Board. The company does not have an estimate for the financial benefits to current customers.

Avery Pittman of the Old North End in Burlington, a member of the anti-pipeline group Rising Tide Vermont and a Vermont Gas customer, says the projected increase would be burdensome for ratepayers.

“Me and most of my neighbors, we live in old houses that are not insulated. We’re renting,” Pittman said. “And facing a 15 to 20 percent rate increase is just not doable for most of us. We don’t have a say right now in whether or not we’re going to be paying for that.”

The company has not yet finalized the rate impacts of the project.

“We’ve made no rate proposal. And we are going to remain committed to keeping our prices affordable and competitive,” said Beth Parent, a spokeswoman for Vermont Gas.

The company will continue building the pipeline despite the possibility that regulators could amend or revoke the permit. Vermont Gas asked the Public Service Board to make a decision on the remand by early June.

“We’re hopeful that it can be concluded as soon as possible,” Parent said.

Some environmentalists say alternative heating sources have emerged since the project was approved in 2013. Heather-Lea said she uses oil and wood to heat her home, but said residents should use heat pumps powered by solar panels, for example, rather than natural gas.

“I believe we can keep ourselves warm using other ways that are locally generated,” she said.

Parent said natural gas gives customers a choice.

The company wants to help create a cleaner energy sector that is heavily reliant on renewables. “Natural gas is still a very competitive, reliable and an important choice for families.”

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