Vermont Gas Systems and its opponents came out swinging Monday over whether the state should permit a proposed 43-mile natural gas pipeline.
The Vermont Public Service Board called the parties together in Montpelier for the first of five days of technical hearings on the proposed pipeline extension into Addison County. The board must approve the project before it can proceed.
Monday’s hearing came after the Agency of Natural Resources signed an agreement with VTGas late Friday that requires the gas utility to drill below wetlands and take environmental measures to enhance vegetation around the line and reduce invasive species. The proceedings also followed a raucous public hearing in Middlebury last week, where opponents dominated the conversation.
During part of Monday’s hearing at the Capitol Plaza hotel and conference center, protesters from the group Rising Tide Vermont held a mock trial outside. In a symbolic act, they implicated Gov. Peter Shumlin and three VTGas executives for “crimes against the climate.” Shumlin and VTGas executives maintain that natural gas is a cleaner and cheaper alternative to fuel oil and propane.
VTGas is a subsidiary of the Canadian gas company Gaz Métro, which also owns Green Mountain Power, Vermont’s largest electric utility. VTGas is Vermont’s only natural gas utility, and its $86.6 million proposal is attracting a range of opposition.
It’s not every day that the Conservation Law Foundation and the Vermont Fuel Dealers Association work side by side, but this proposed project is bringing the disparate organizations together.
Monday’s hearing began with the cross-examination of VTGas CEO Don Gilbert. CLF attorney Sandra Levine and Fuel Dealers’ attorney Richard Saudek, who formerly chaired the Vermont Public Service Board, kicked things off with a barrage of questions.
Levine homed in on the practice of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which is often panned by environmentalists for the threats it poses to drinking water resources. Fracking, which is banned in Vermont, uses a series of underground explosions and high-pressure injections of water, sand and chemicals to extract natural gas from rock formations, such as shale. The practice has drastically increased the North American supply of natural gas since 2008 — and reduced its cost.
“Do you agree that a portion of the supply that would be used by the Addison natural gas project would come from sources that use hydraulic fracturing?” Levine asked Gilbert.
“I think it’s likely,” he responded.
Levine then asked if VTGas would agree to cease using gas from fracking.
“I don’t think that would be in the best interest of our customers, no,” he said.
The Fuel Dealers Association has argued that VTGas is overstating the economic and environmental benefits of the project. Since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is analyzing the effects of fracking on drinking water resources, Saudek asked Gilbert if he thought it might be wise to put off the project until the EPA releases its report in 2014.
Gilbert was not keen on the idea.
“We’ve seen hydraulic fracturing develop recently in the energy industry, but it’s been a technology used for decades in the water-drilling industry and has developed over time for natural gas, and now we’re seeing it used for oil and propane,” he said. “To deny Vermonters access to the lower price and cleaner benefits of gas, I don’t think would be in the best interest of the state or our customers.”
Saudek then proposed a scenario in which governments might clamp down on the practice.
“Your prices would most likely go up,” he said.
“It could,” Gilbert said, but the fuel’s competitive edge would depend on the price of other fuels. And, he said, clamping down on fracking would not only affect the price of natural gas, it would also affect the price of oil and propane.
VTGas Vice President Eileen Simollardes later took the stand, defending the route of the project.
“It’s very unfortunate that not everybody can be happy with it, but we do believe that in totality it is the right place,” she said.
She indicated that 43 percent of the 40-plus mile route is secured via land easement contracts with landowners. VTGas is in negotiations with landowners for another 32 percent of the route. If the Public Service Board awards VTGas a permit, or certificate of public good, the company could possibly obtain access to the remaining 25 percent of the land through eminent domain.
“I believe with every fiber of my being that this is a good deal for Vermont,” Simollardes said.
But Jane and Nathan Palmer of Monkton say it’s not such a good deal for them. The pipeline is slated to go through their property, and they are unhappy about it.
The Palmers are interveners in the proceeding, and Nathan Palmer cross-examined Simollardes for almost half an hour.
“Do you think this is a done deal?” an exasperated Palmer asked at the end of his questioning.
She said that she did not, and, more importantly, Board Chair James Volz said it was not.
“The company can’t go forward without our approval, and we certainly haven’t made a decision,” Volz told Palmer. “This is not a done deal.”