The Mountain Times

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Why Rutland area residents should stay tuned to the Addison County natural gas pipeline projects

Editor's note: Vermont Gas Systems currently has plans to extend its natural gas pipeline system into Addison County and, eventually, on into Rutland County. That goal meshes with the state's economic development policy of extending natural gas into the Rutland County area to diversify fuel sources and to bring more competition in the fuel market. Natural gas prices are currently about 55 percent cheaper than propane and 40 percent cheaper than most fuel oil. Opponents in Addison County, however, are upset with the asthetics of the pipeline corridor along the chosen route and, in particular, against a spur from Middlebury to Ticonderoga, N.Y., to serve the International Paper mill there - a proposition that would speed up the construction of the pipeline to Rutland County by more than a decade. If that is defeated, however, the pipeline is not likely to reach Rutland County until 2025 or after. Below is a commentary by the Addison Independent in Middlebury, explaining the role of the Public Service Board and the issues at hand.

To understand the push south into Addison County by Vermont Gas Systems, it's helpful to understand their mandate as dictated by the Public Service Board.

Similar to utility companies in the state, Vermont Gas Systems is a highly regulated business. It earns money based on the dollar value of the pipeline that is laid throughout the state (not on the fuel that flows through its pipes), and it is charged with serving the public good by expanding into vital markets in an effective and cost-efficient manner. What that means is that VGS is compelled to expand throughout the state as long as it can maintain competitive rates for existing customers (in Chittenden and Franklin counties) and push into new markets that would, in turn, offer residents and businesses more options to control heating and cooling costs.

Several years ago, the PSB agreed to a deal that allowed VGS to increase its rates to existing customers in Franklin and Chittenden Counties by a small percentage (rather than provide them with further rate discounts) in order to stockpile enough cash to facilitiate expansion to Middlebury and on south to Rutland. The PSB agreed to the deal because it furthered the state's objective of providing a public good to those areas: that good being lower priced fuel that adds less pollution into the atmosphere than the fossil fuels currently used.

The mandate that VGS is trying to fulfill with the Phase I project to Middlebury, then, is to develop that pipeline as efficiently as possible in terms of money spent and years to completion.

After testy talks with Monkton and a vote by the selectboard that rejected any agreement with VGS, that selectboard eventually gave its tacit blessing to the project, which effectively paved the way for approval into Addison County. But in  Cornwall, Shoreham and parts of Middlebury, residents are not as likely to approve the spur  (called Addison County Project Phase II) to Ticonderoga, which would likely affect the timetable and ability of the gas company to bring the pipeline to Rutland County with a stop at OMYA to benefit that large user of thermal energy.

Why would Rutland County want more options in fuel? Because natural gas is currently running about 40-50 percent cheaper than heating oil, and 55 percent cheaper than propane; because it causes 20-plus percent less carbon dioxide pollution into the atmosphere than existing fossil fuels used in Vermont; and because of VGS' stellar safety record.

What is Rutland County's role in this debate at this time? If the business and residential communities want more diversity in their marketplace for fuel options, those communities need to speak up and let the PSB and the Public Service Department know that they need and want the natural gas option.

If residents in Franklin and Chittenden counties have so warmly embraced natural gas for the past 30-plus years, what's the concern of those in Addison County who oppose the pipeline? Opposition is based more on unfounded fears (of explosions and danger to homes), a bit of nimbyism, significant opposition to using gas that has been fracked and opposition to an enhanced reliance on fossil fuels. Many opponents believe that the state should be encouraging more renewable energy usage, while eliminating all fossile fuel use or, at least, eliminating as much as possible. While Phase II benefits the public good in terms of getting the pipeline built into Rutland County must faster, opponents argue the main benefit is to VGS and IP, which is estimated to save almost $20 million a year in lower fuel costs.

Determining if the benefit to VGS and IP is in the public good and whether it's worth the tramping through three towns on a spur route is one of the current battle points. What's known is that the state and the gas company want Vermont residents to be served in a responsible manner. Hammering out the details that assure the gas company is responsible in its delivery of the natural gas is the public's business. But, like providing electric transmission lines throughout the Green Mountain State via VELCO, the state has determined there is a public good to the basic distribution of natural gas. How it spreads that service and how it is paid for are still to be determined.

What's the public good? Quite simply: a stronger economic base. When hospitals, schools, businesses, institutions like a college, industries and home owners can reduce heating and cooling expenses by 40 to 50 percent, saving the average resident $1,500 to $2,000 per year on heating costs, and big businesses can save up to a $1 million or more, that increases the quality of living, makes businesses more competitive and meets a public good.

When businesses can afford to hire more people and increase wages, that's a public good.

When we can attract new industry and jobs to town because of less expensive fuel (and a mix of energy resources that keep downward pressure on all fuel prices), that also meets a public good. And when gas could help boost the economic development in faltering areas, like Rutland, that too is a public good.

Like it or not, the public's primary role is to assure VGS carries out its mission well. To argue against climate change or fracking or imagine safety issues that are not reflected in VGS's track record is to misunderstand the PSB and its process of the past 30-plus years with natural gas distribution. But it is only considered a public good if the businesses and residents of the host county are in favor of it; if the majority are opposed, then the public good might be defined in different metrics. Giving voice to those issues is the role Rutland County residents should start to play today, not a decade from now.