Protest outside, tension inside as PSB hearings on VTGas pipeline begin

Nathan and Jane Palmer of Monkton are not happy that a proposed natural gas pipeline is slated to go through their property. Photo by Andrew Stein/VTDigger

Nathan and Jane Palmer of Monkton are not happy that a proposed natural gas pipeline is slated to go through their property. Photo by Andrew Stein/VTDigger

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.

Don Gilbert, CEO of Vermont Gas Systems, testifies before the Public Service Board at a technical hearing at Capitol Plaza in Montpelier on Monday. Photo by Andrew Stein/VTDigger

Don Gilbert, CEO of Vermont Gas Systems, testifies before the Public Service Board at a technical hearing at Capitol Plaza in Montpelier on Monday. Photo by Andrew Stein/VTDigger

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.”

Opponents of a natural gas pipeline proposed for Addison County demonstrate Monday outside a Public Service Board hearing at the Capitol Plaza in Montpelier. Photo by Viola Gad/VTDigger

Opponents of a natural gas pipeline proposed for Addison County demonstrate Monday outside a Public Service Board hearing at the Capitol Plaza in Montpelier. Photo by Viola Gad/VTDigger

Andrew Stein

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17 Comments on "Protest outside, tension inside as PSB hearings on VTGas pipeline begin"

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Matt Fisken
3 years 14 days ago
It is more than “likely” that a portion of the natural gas VTGas hopes to sell via an extended pipeline would come from fracking. The gas currently imported from north of the border does already. Saying it would not be in the “best interests” of VTGas’s customers to not sell fracked gas is also a stretch. There is no separating out the “conventional” gas from that which is extracted with “newer technologies.” The easily accessible gas is in very short supply and the majority of future wells WILL be fracked. It would be like asking McDonalds to only serve grass-fed… Read more »
3 years 14 days ago

I appreciate the commitment of those protesting the proposed pipeline. Canadian owned Vermont Gaz does not own the property in their chosen path. New York said no. We are saying no. Raucous or not, this is about private property and the environment.

walter judge
3 years 14 days ago

The Palmers thought this pipeline was great — just until they found out it would involve their property. Their opposition is the very definition of hypocritical NIMBYISM.

Kathy Nelson
3 years 14 days ago
Walter, it is a shame that you choose to fling an insult rather than look at the origin and scope of this conflict. A Canadian-owned company is seeking the legal right to make a profit by stomping on the VT people’s constitutional right to protect their homes and property. They would use the corrupt PSB and the obscene brutality of act 248 to strip these people of their right to protect themselves from unwanted industrialization. No Vermonters will benefit from this in any way, only Gaz Metro in Canada will profit from it. I hope the people in opposition to… Read more »
walter judge
3 years 14 days ago

You say “fling insult” and then you call three decent human beings and their entire staff (the PSB) “corrupt” and “obscene.”

They haven’t even made a decision yet, but you calling them corrupt and obscene. Shame on you.

Jane Palmer
3 years 14 days ago
I’m sorry, I don’t think we have met, have we? We have stated, in various articles, that up until about a year ago, we bought the whole snow job that Vermont Gas has been feeding the public on how clean and cheap “natural” gas is. We were actually kind of pissed when we found out that VGS was not going to offer distribution to anyone in Monkton..they were just using our valley as a conduit to get it to IP. Then we did some research. It would have been so nice if it were what they say it is…but as… Read more »
Stan Jones
3 years 14 days ago
The comments being made here regarding environment are fallacious. The issues regarding fracking sound as if Matt Damon wrote the script. In fact, what everyone stands to lose from opposing a cheaper, cleaner, more efficient form of energy is an unknown energy provider who has no claim to Vermont and doesn’t give a hoot about clean anything. Keep hugging the trees because once energy prices become unsustainable, everyone will demand cheap energy no matter how it gets to their homes and businesses. I would rather have Canadian investors in my state than Saudi or Iranian investors. The environment is a… Read more »
Moshe Braner
3 years 13 days ago
“Fracking… has drastically increased the North American supply of natural gas since 2008 — and reduced its cost.” – the supply increase is temporary (it’s already stalled in the last 2 years), and it has INCREASED the cost – because fracking is rather expensive. Scraping the bottom of the barrel requires a lot of elbow grease. Or in this case hundreds of truck trips just to haul the water for fracking one well. What has decreased is the selling price – due to a temporary surplus of supply relative to demand, it is selling for half what it costs to… Read more »
Elisabeth Hebert
3 years 13 days ago
Matt Fisken writes: “…It would be like asking McDonalds to only serve grass-fed organic beef. There simply is not enough supply to meet the existing demand. ” Well, that is exactly the point. We have finally to learn to be much more conservative with our use. Just as it is horrible to torture animals so we can have cheap hamburgers (which are bad for our health) it is horrible to destroy our planet (and not in our interest for the future- no other planet available as far as I know) so we can use unlimited energy. Are we humans really… Read more »
Hattie Nestel
3 years 13 days ago

Jane and Nathan, You have my FULL support. It will be ugly and dirty. Money grabbers have a good knack for that. Keep your course and hang on for a bumpy ride ahead. Hope you prevail.
Hattie Nestel

Mary Martin
3 years 13 days ago

I second Hattie!

Stan Jones
3 years 13 days ago

Natural gas resources are temporary? Natural gas has been used for over a century and more is being found. Where are the facts to support natural gas supplies are temporary? This sounds like another “red herring” (excuse) to ignore the obvious. natural gas is clean, cheap and plentiful. That’s a fact. There are no resources to support anyone’s claims to the contrary.

Matt Fisken
3 years 11 days ago

Stan, for the record, are you the former libertarian politician from Montana, or someone else?

http://www.ontheissues.org/International/Stan_Jones_Energy_+_Oil.htm

Mike Kerin
3 years 13 days ago

Knowing the damage “fraking” does to the environment is all we need to decide NO! Vermont is a leader in environmental issues. We need to continue leading,

Stan Jones
3 years 11 days ago
That was funny Matt. You know what isn’t funny? Being in the bottom 10 states in the country for energy production and consumption (good environmental efforts) and being the top 1/3 in cost per capita for energy use (WTF?). No wonder this state is a target for outsiders to intervene. People on this string claim to “know about the environmental damage” of fracking, yet there is not one environmental damage issue due to fracking, and read Richard Heinberg (a primitivist by the way) who says “our nation is addicted to electricity like a drug”. All I’m trying to say is… Read more »
Matt Fisken
3 years 10 days ago

so, I’ll assume that’s a “yes?”

It’s always good to know who’s targeting us from the outside. You’re so thoughtful for trying to “intervene.”

Michael Smith
3 years 10 days ago
In regards to all of these comments about fracking, please note that it is not a new technology. Every oil well or gas well drilled (except for the occasional blow-out) has been fracked. In the old days they would lower explosives down the hole and set them off. For the past 50 or more years, fracking with water under high pressure has been ubiquitous. It is almost impossible to complete a well without fracking. The difference/new technology is the fracking of very long horizontal wells and the addition of chemicals to the water used to frack the wells. Most older/traditional… Read more »
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