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
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
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.