Guest Column: Vermont Gas CEO misleads public on VT Gas pipeline

By Chuck Reiss

A recent commentary by Don Rendall (the CEO of Vermont Gas) in Vermont Digger was very misleading and shades of half-truths at best. He mentions the tens of millions of dollars pumped into the Vermont economy this summer thanks to the expansion of service via the Addison County pipeline.

These dollars are ratepayers’ dollars hiring contractors from outside of Vermont. If the Vermont economy was such a focus for Vermont Gas, why not hire in-state contractors? And why talk about pumping Vermonters’ own money into a project hiring out-of-state workers?

But this is not the more significant issue for the Vermont Gas pipeline as I see it for our state. The idea that natural gas is “a new, reliable, affordable and much cleaner energy choice,” to quote the Vermont Gas CEO in that same piece, and the argument that we need natural gas is misleading.

Let’s first acknowledge that Vermont Gas and its parent company, Gas Metro, is a business and they are selling a product. They are purposefully controlling the choices they are presenting to the public to make their product look favorable. Natural gas vs. oil or propane, is that our option? How about wood heat? Or solar photovoltaic (PV)? Or heat pumps?

If, for example, you took a typical Vermont home, air sealed and insulated it, installed heat pumps and solar PV you may reduce the oil or propane consumption close to 90 percent and in some cases 100 percent and most certainly have a reliable, affordable and much cleaner energy choice. The sun is a fairly reliable energy source, at least for the next few million years. The jobs created to make this transition would go to Vermonters, not folks visiting Vermont for a summer. And the jobs would continue for decades as we transition into a more sustainable energy future.

This is not a pie-in-the-sky scenario; weatherization, mechanical contractors and renewable energy installers have been doing this for years. The Department of Public Service has received research showing that air to air heat pumps, even without solar PV, is competitive with natural gas. So where has the one state government entity that is supposed to protect the public’s interest been?

Time to clean house at the Department of Public Service and the Public Service Board and put the public’s interest first and let the utility know that Vermont has some specific energy goals.

 The problem is that our governor and the Department of Public Service have been sold a bill of goods from Vermont Gas. They have allowed themselves to be convinced that natural gas is going to be a bridge fuel that is necessary to transition into our sustainable energy future. And now that the price tag has gone through the roof, the public service board cannot withhold their approval, fearing that a major utility could go under if they pull the plug. So who will foot the bill? The ratepayers will. This is the unfortunate side of placing faith in a company that didn’t do its homework, and speaks half-truths to hide its incompetence.

The commissioner of the Department of Public Service has also recently said that the folks protesting the pipeline are making it more expensive for the ratepayers. In the same article it was noted that the delays due to protests have cost the gas company over $500,000. The cost of the pipeline has gone from an initial $87 million to over $165 million. For the commissioner to suggest that overruns due to public protest are playing a significant role in the Vermont Gas budget fiasco is nothing short of absurd. Half a million vs. $78 million overrun?! The commissioner has lost perspective.

The Vermont Gas pipeline was a mistake. No amount of half-truths and misleading information from Vermont Gas and the Department of Public Service will hide the fact that this was a project that never should have happened – from both an environmental and economic perspective. Time to clean house at the Department of Public Service and the Public Service Board and put the public’s interest first and let the utilities know that Vermont has some specific energy goals. Utilities need to work with us to reach those goals or the utility may need a serious course correction, one that serves Vermonters and not just the corporate headquarters. And a Department of Public Service that truly protects Vermont’s interests.

Chuck Reiss lives in Hinesburg, owns Reiss Building and Renovation, a green construction company, is a founding member of Building for Social Responsibility and also is a director of the Building Performance Professional Association of Vermont. He is also chairman of the Hinesburg Energy committee.