Rebecca Foster: The state’s Pipeline Service Department?

Editor’s note: Charlotte resident Rebecca Foster is a member of the town’s energy committee and writes the column Carpe Greenum for The Citizen, a weekly newspaper for Charlotte and Hinesburg.

In case you were wondering this far ahead what to give me for Christmas, I want An Answer: What does the Vermont Public Service Department do?

A year and a half ago, when all this pipeline business got started, the Public Service Board (PSB) assured the public that its interests would be carefully looked after by the department, whose mission is to “serve all citizens of Vermont” and “meet the public’s need for least cost, environmentally sound, … sustainable, and safe energy … and regulated utility systems in the state.” Oh, and there’s “strong consumer protection advocacy” in there, too. What great good luck for us! A government body that will go to the mat for all Vermonters and “lead the nation” in energy efficiency! Renewable energy! Utility regulation! (Says the Department’s online vision circle.)

Optimistically, Monkton residents walked into a meeting with department reps to discuss the gas transmission pipeline proposed to cut through their town. A Vermont Gas Systems (VGS) right-of-way agent had warned two elderly brothers against talking to their neighbors about the pipeline. But since they had not signed a gag order, the ROW agent was — ahem — overstating, and intimidating the brothers into silence. A widow was told by her VGS agent that she was required to counter VGS’s offer even though she didn’t want to, and the agent suggested the precise amount he thought would do the trick. Is that even legal? A Monkton official admitted there were a lot of people in town that might sign documents against their will when so intimidated.

So the Monkton residents had high hopes when they went to the meeting this March, but “we walked out of there shocked to realize that nobody would be looking out for us,” said Maren Vasatka. “It was deceptive to pose as if they were going to help us.” The department’s counsel told Vasatka that its primary obligation was to protect ratepayers, so it could not take any action that might lead to landowners’ receiving higher (read: fair) compensation.

To this day, VGS is proposing easements that Vasatka believes would be dangerous for landowners to sign. They are still written to protect and benefit VGS, solely. The provisions are so broad that the pipeline could change size or transport any kind of “gaseous” material, additional pipes could be laid, and VGS would have the right to sell the easement at any time to anyone. In perpetuity. Vasatka made what seems a small, straightforward addition to her easement: Should her property insurance ever require a pipeline rider, VGS will pay for it. VGS’s response: No way, but if you need to sue us in the future, be our guest.

I want to be clear about what these easements represent: A permanent profit corridor for VGS on which the landowner continues to pay taxes, is restricted in the use of the land, and is at risk of explosions for generations. Over-reaction? This country has experienced some 8,000 significant (i.e., someone hospitalized or killed or damages of over $50,000) gas and oil pipeline ruptures from 1986 to 2013 totaling $7 billion in damages. (U.S. Department of Transportation Pipeline & Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.)

Given that the department prides itself on serving “all citizens of Vermont” as a utility regulator, it’s hard to understand why it would refuse to help landowners come to a fair agreement with the utility it is supposed to be regulating. But let’s do a thought experiment and pretend that it’s not possible to look after the interests of both landowners and ratepayers, and that the department is busy safeguarding the ratepayers, because at least that would be something …

The “ratepayers,” by the way, are the 45,000 VGS customers in Chittenden and Franklin counties who are already being gouged to the tune of $4.4 million annually for 20 years to pay for this very pipeline expansion.

Guess who decided to take that money from ratepayers?

It’s fishy that VGS knew about the increases in March this year, but waited until just after they had received all of their construction permits to announce the necessary rate hike of 3.8 percent just to cover the increase.

 

The first sentence of the 2011 order from the PSB authorizing the swindle is, “Vermont Gas Systems, supported by the Vermont Department of Public Service, has proposed the establishment of the System Expansion and Reliability Fund for VGS.” Board member John Burke dissented from this decision on the basis that VGS’s parent company, Gaz Metro, had an embarrassing amount of cash it could use as “venture capital” for new fossil fuel infrastructure without taking it from the ratepayers. The department proved itself a ratepayer advocate after all — it advocated that ratepayers pay instead of the multi-billion-dollar Gaz Metro.

The department worked out the ratepayer plan with VGS and signed a memorandum of understanding with VGS long before the PSB had technical hearings, deliberated, and ruled on the case. Most ratepayers don’t realize that a portion of their bill is earmarked for building a pipeline from Colchester to Middlebury (Phase 1). When VGS announced in July that the cost of Phase 1 was going up by 40 percent to $121 million, ratepayers started to pay attention. (Word came out this week that the cost of Phase 2 has gone up as well, 50.1 percent from $49.3 million to $74 million.)

It’s worth looking at the details of the budget. Although Phase 1 as a whole went up by 40 percent, not every aspect of it went up evenly. Some went up more: Engineering and oversight went up 65 percent; “other expenses” went up 325 percent. All of that extra money goes to VGS and VGS partners and subcontractors. By contrast, landowner easements went up at a lower rate, 25 percent.

It’s fishy that VGS knew about the increases in March this year, but waited until just after they had received all of their construction permits to announce the necessary rate hike of 3.8 percent just to cover the increase. It’s a tried and true method: Get them hooked, and only after give them the bad news, kind of like herpes. This is the “bait-and-switch” that had Vermonters so outraged that they took their complaint directly to the department and the PSB at a “fish-in” on July 21.

“This is unprecedented in Vermont,” reads the response to the cost increase filing by intervenors Kristin Lyons and Nathan and Jane Palmer. “Franklin and Chittenden County ratepayers will be paying for the Addison upgrade for so long that the analysis in the Board’s order no longer supports, or fits, the facts of the case.” The motion asks the PSB to open an investigation, and potentially re-open the permitting of the certificate of public good (CPG).

To qualify for the CPG (and to continue to qualify for it), the project must represent the least cost option over, say, energy conservation and efficiency, says the Conservation Law Foundation. The department, don’t forget, is supposed to be keeping a keen eye out for “least cost” energy for Vermonters. When the cost of hooking up 3,000 new gas customers rose with this price increase to over $40,000 each, that made buttoning up, which can reduce energy consumption by 50 percent, look mighty good at an average cost of $7,500. For $121 million we could weatherize over 16,000 homes.

Michael Hurlburt called the Phase 1 price increase “offensive” in his comments to the PSB. “As farmers, who work hard for our income and don’t have the luxury of other people paying for us to make a profit … we simply cannot understand the attitude inherent in VGS’ filing. In the current economy, every Vermonter, including ratepayers and landowners are watching every penny and living on tight budgets.” Except Gaz Metro, he adds.

But just because the department was in cahoots with VGS against the ratepayers on the expansion fund plan doesn’t mean it wouldn’t leap to protect them against this enormous increase in the cost of the project, right? Well, the hero of this column, the department, evidently did not take offense at the price increase, and nor does it want the increase to be analyzed too closely. “It would be counter-productive,” the department writes in its response to the PSB, “to halt the project, thereby driving up costs, in order to conduct a proceeding that would almost certainly result in renewed findings that the project meets the section 248 criteria.” If it is so certain — or, er, almost certain — let’s re-open the case and verify, because many people who are scrutinizing the numbers are coming to the conclusion that this project is pathologically throwing good money after bad. And if that is the case, the cost of taking the time to get the decision right would be repaid millions of times over.

Caught between growing public discontent and caving on its “strong consumer protection advocacy” role by refusing to examine the financial details on behalf of ratepayers, the department had to devise a punishment. It focused exclusively on the administrative flaw of delayed reporting and “request[ed] that the Board issue an order directing VGS to pay a civil penalty of $35,000.” VGS had been prepped by the department (“The Department has notified VGS of its intent.”) Upon the department’s filing, immediately and eagerly VGS lawyers told the PSB that “VGS has decided to pay the amount of $35,000 proposed by the Department.” Apparently the proposal was too good to pass up and VGS did not want to wait for a legitimate order from the board that might actually be meaningful.

The department admits that it knew about the increased costs in March. It says it “urged VGS” to file the new information with the PSB. Yes, friends, leading the nation in utility regulation, it took four months for that utility to comply with the department’s urging.

For failure to report what it knew, the department should also be fined $35,000. And then it should be taken to task for subverting its own mission and disillusioning the public.

Comments

  1. roger tubby :

    This is an extremely well-stated piece, Rebecca.

    Could you supply any links to reference material? I’m outside of the immediate area of concern for this pipeline but not without concerns for the way the PSB runs its “business”.

    • Melanie Peyser :

      Dear Roger,

      I see that you may not have received an answer to your request for references so I thought that I would provide a few:

      The Docket (7712) for the approval of the Expansion and Reliability Fund, as proposed by VGS and supported by the Department of Public Service can be found here: http://psb.vermont.gov/sites/psb/files/orders/2011/2011-2/7712FiinalOorder.pdf . For a transcript of the hearings and additional supporting details, you would need to do a public records request, I believe.

      You might also want to look at the associated dockets related to VGS’ ratemaking: Dockets 8809 at: http://psb.vermont.gov/docketsandprojects/gas/8009 and the order for Dockets 7803 and 7843 at: http://psb.vermont.gov/sites/psb/files/orders/2012/2012-8/7803-7843FinalOrder.pdf .

      You can find available orders and motions related to Docket 7970 (Phase I) here: http://psb.vermont.gov/docketsandprojects/gas/7970 .

      For Docket (Phase II), here is the link to available documents: http://psb.vermont.gov/docketsandprojects/gas/8180 .

      You won’t necessarily find all of the petitioners’ and interveners’ motions, petitions, responses, etc. on the PSB website. I believe that the PSB hopes to update the website to improve public access to documents from proceedings. In the meantime, you may need to request copies of specific motions referenced above that you don’t find readily on the website by contacting the PSB directly, but you can generally find all of the recent orders by looking here: http://psb.vermont.gov/docketsandprojects/orders/recent .

      I hope this helps!

      • roger tubby :

        Melanie – thanks very belatedly.

        The links you supplied should keep me reading (un)happily for many hours.

        Another request for VTDigger: Please give us a way to receive notifications on postings that we have commented on (for each, daily or weekly digests.) Anne, you have done a wonderful job, and with this site!

  2. Randy Martin :

    The Public Service Department, if you can even call it that, needs either a major overhaul or needs to be abolished. They are not serving anyone. They are just puppets of the Utility Companies. SHAME on them.

  3. Jennifer Baker :

    Point of fact: While the cost of RoW easements has gone up 25%, it was never that much to begin with, so it is still only an increase of $1 million out of the entire $121.6 million budget. So don’t blame “greedy” landowners.

    Anyone who wants to see the budget update VGS filed with the PSB can download it here:
    https://www.dropbox.com/sh/e55cjeu60cr77dz/AADpBFdIoUbIHPNs8iVIsnYfa

  4. Jane Palmer :

    I LOVE the reference to herpes! This pipeline project does feel a bit like a bad virus we have been fighting to survive for the last year and a half. Only we never took the bait…we were netted in the course of the pipeline sighting process.
    Back in early 2013, we wrote to our governor and asked for help in participating in the 248 process so we could defend our property against VGS. Governor Shumlin suggested we call the DPS for help. But lo and behold, we came quickly to realize that the Public Service Department serves no one but the utilities in this case. And the reality is, our hard earned money, in the form of state taxes, is going to pay the DPS salaries! Holy herpes!

  5. Glenn Thompson :

    From the article!

    “The “ratepayers,” by the way, are the 45,000 VGS customers in Chittenden and Franklin counties who are already being gouged to the tune of $4.4 million annually for 20 years to pay for this very pipeline expansion.”

    It is my understanding NG prices are approx 1/2 of that of Fuel Oil & Propane? If the ratepayers are being ‘gouged’ by Natural Gas….what is it called when Vermonters pay ‘double’ to heat their homes with Fuel Oil & Propane?

    • Jane Palmer :

      Glen, I am afraid your “understanding” has come from the gazillion ads VGS has been plastering the region with. (I am assuming advertising costs are lumped in the ‘other costs’ category in their budget update which have gone up about 300%) Vermont folks who get “natural” gas now have not been realizing the savings VGS has been touting. In fact, (to use your terminology) it is my understanding that while the cost of “natural” gas in other areas of the country has gone down by 43% with the recent glut of gas caused by the fracking boom, Vermont Gas prices have only gone down 24%. Somehow, Gaz Metro/VGS has managed to keep more of the profit than other gas companies in other areas of the country. Or perhaps they are just mismanaging their money?

      • Glenn Thompson :

        Jane Palmer,

        “Glen, I am afraid your “understanding” has come from the gazillion ads VGS has been plastering the region with.”

        I have no idea why you would draw that conclusion? FYI, I’ve never heard a VGS ad…just to clear that up! It’s easy enough to do comparisons using a ‘energy unit calculator’ and knowing the unit price of any fuel source. I haven’t run the calculator recently, but when I did…NG costs were substantially cheaper than Fuel Oil, Kerosene, and Propane! Didn’t the costs of those fuels exceed the $4/gal mark during this past winter?

        I can’t disagree NG prices in Vermont are higher than the avg throughout the country. Everything in Vermont is more expensive. My electric rates in Vermont are 50% higher than my Arizona rates. To date I’ve spent $243 for NG (including heat & domestic hot water) during 2014 on my Az Property. In Vermont I would blow through that figure within a month during winter months.

        I get it…you dislike NG and you dislike Vermont Gas. If you feel you are getting screwed over by Vermont Gas…then I don’t blame you. Could be Vermont Gas behaves the same way as Industrial Wind companies treat people living near those turbines?

        My only comment was directed at the choice of words being use….which was ‘gouged’. If Vermonters are being ‘gouged’ due to NG prices….what is it called when people are forced to pay $4/gal or more for other fuel sources to heat their homes?

        • Jane Palmer :

          Mr Thompson,
          I was referring to the flashing ads to the right of the screen on VTDigger…that make all sorts of savings claims and also claims that “natural” gas is cleaner. (maybe they don’t target you, or perhaps you are able to tune them out…) I also see VGS ads on Front Porch Forum and in the Addison Independent. I imagine this pipeline project has been an decent economic engine for many of my favorite news sources…and I am glad for that ray of sunshine in an otherwise bleak horizon. But I also feel that if this pipeline was such a good deal, it would sell itself. But now that you mention it, I am sure VGS is targeting Addison County and that is where most of the ads are focused. My apologies for making that assumption.
          I do dislike VGS because of personal experience but also from the way they do business in general. I try not to take it personally and I think other utilities do treat people near their wind machines similarly. It’s all about the money. But what really gets me is the way Gaz Metro (GMP, VGS, and 40% of VELCO) is gaming our state government. Again, I think their moves are straight from the big corporate playbooks and it is happening all across the nation..probably the world. But I tend to focus my attention on Vermont because this is where I live and love and I feel that if Vermont can’t make the changes necessary toward a livable planet, then our future, as a species, is hopeless.

          The gouging I think Ms Foster was referring to is the money ratepayers in Chittenden and Franklin Counties are being forced to contribute for the expansion of this pipeline when it won’t benefit them in any way. Most are not aware of this as it is not a line item on their bills.

        • Melanie Peyser :

          Hi Glenn,

          I would like to clarify: the $4.4 million is the total amount (for the first few years as it will climb over time) that is being put into the Expansion and Reliability Fund, through which Vermont Gas will be paid back (with interest) for construction of Phase I of the pipeline. This amount represents the 5% rate reduction that ratepayers should have received but did not when the Public Service Board, upon Vermont Gas’ application (which DPS vigorously supported) to hold back that rate reduction, move it out of the gas charge and into a separate surcharge, and make that surcharge a permanent – or at least for the twenty following years to fund pipeline construction. That application was approved in September 2011 – back when the pipeline was only supposed to cost around $65-$75 million. The new cost of Phase I according to Vermont Gas is $121.6 so a further rate increase of 3.9% is expected. That brings the total that 45,000 Vermont Gas customers in Chittenden and Franklin Counties will be paying for the construction of Phase I to 8.9% over the amount that they should be paying for gas and gas service per month. That 8.9% being charged to customers over and above the proper price for the gas and service they are actually receiving will mean that Vermont Gas will offer gas service to a maximum of 3000 customers in Addison County.

          You might want to know who isn’t paying for this pipeline: Vermont Gas won’t pay a penny in the end. The company will be paid back out of the Expansion Fund with interest.

          Since Vermont Gas’ favorite refrain is that anything that might not go their way will increase the price of the project and therefore cost ratepayers more, it’s easy to imagine that if anyone questions whether a Vermont Gas request for reimbursement is valid sometime in the not-too-distant future the answer from VGS and the Department will be that if they don’t get the money the project will get even more expensive.

      • Scott Mackey :

        I wish my heating oil price had “only” dropped by 25%. I would be paying $2.70 per gallon instead of $3.60. Is burning oil from fracked fields in North Dakota better for the environment than burning gas from fracked fields in North Dakota? If not, why shouldn’t Vermonters have access to a cheaper alternative to heat their homes? I hope VT Gas will consider building a pipeline to Waterbury. We already have three existing ROW corridors: the Interstate, the Railroad, and a high voltage power line. Maybe Green Mountain Coffee Roasters and Ben & Jerrys could save money and create more jobs!

        • Jane Palmer :

          Hi Scott,
          You make a familiar point. That oil is fracked too and oil and propane are more expensive than fracked gas as well. Ever stop to wonder why that is? Oil production is up now too. And propane is derived from the “natural” gas extraction process. So…why do you think there is such a price difference? Because most of the players that supply the oil and gas and propane are the same players! They can manipulate the markets so that “natural” gas becomes the cheaper option…so, naturally, (no pun intended) the public starts shouting out for more publicly funded pipelines…which, in turn, cranks up the number of users of gas which, in turn cranks up the price. (law of supply and demand)
          I don’t know about you, but I think it’s time to get off the fossil fuel habit entirely. And yes, I know it will take time, but why take a step…a very expensive step that commits us to using more fossil fuel when we need to stop using it? Look into air source heat pumps or wood pellets and super insulating your house . Your savings could be as much as it would turn out to be if you converted to “natural” gas and you wouldn’t be supporting the gas and oil industry. We stopped burning fossil fuels to heat our home twelve years ago and cut our heating bills by more than half back then.

        • Melanie Peyser :

          Here is a website with lots of tips to do just that without natural gas or a pipeline. Why wait? Moreover, if you have a furnace or boiler that more than ten years old it could cost you as much as $8,000-$14,000 to convert to gas. You could weatherize your home for much less and/or get a cold climate heat pump and save up to 50 percent. And, that’s not to mention the incentives!

          http://www.consumersenergy.com/content.aspx?id=1246#HomeHeating

  6. George Klohck :

    With all the propaganda about the pipeline that is flying around these days, it can be hard for folks to understand the truth of what is going on. Rebecca Foster lays out the facts for us. It is up to us, the people, to stop the skullduggery that VGS and the Dept of Pubic Service are up to.

  7. The Dept of so called Public Service is also a puppet of Gov. Schumlin who has been pushing this whole deceitful project down the throats of our state agencies and the Vermonters. He has even trotted down to Rutland to drum up more business for Gaz Metro/VT Gas. He cares more about a Canadian gas company’s profits than the Vermonters he’s supposed to serve.

  8. Jamie Carter :

    DPS has always been a sham, they dropped the ball so many times to protect residents during the Burlington Telecom Debacle, they were absent during the Lowell Wind Project and people are some how surprised they aren’t stepping up for the VGS project? The Dept. is useless at this point.

  9. Kathy Leonard :

    Does anyone remember the many Energy Generation Siting Commission hearings – hour upon days of testimony before the PSB which revealed the fact that today’s PSB/PSD need to be updated to be able to competently understand and regulate new energy sources?

    Anyone remember the Commission’s recommendations?
    Anyone remember what happened to those recommendations?
    –Nothing! Was this lengthy and necessary process abandoned?

    In the meantime, large corporate energy interests have been trampling citizens with imperatives and gag orders, and the result is that our trust in state oversight and leadership has plummeted. This reminds me of the dysfunctional U.S. House…nobody taking responsibility while corporate “persons” operate at will. Did anyone mention Vermont exceptionalism somewhere recently?

    • Annette Smith :

      The siting commission was clear that their charge was electric generation, so they did not talk about gas pipelines. But they also did not talk about the PSB process and its numerous rounds of prefiled testimony and discovery, something no other court does.

      The commission was made up of people who had no real world experience with the PSB or DPS, except Louise McCarren who served on the PSB more than a decade ago. Initially Jim Mattheau was appointed and he had participated on behalf of the Windham Regional Commission but when he had to leave after the first meeting, his replacement’s experience was limited to a gravel pit going through Act 250. The rest of the appointees were former Secretaries of ANR and Speaker of the House. It was amazing to sit through or listen to all their meetings — and there were many, and they were long — and realize how little they understood about the current process.

      All their meetings had a court reporter present and there are transcripts of all of them. I challenge someone to find where they talked about whether Act 250 might be a better process than the PSB. I know when they talked about it but even I had trouble finding it in the transcript, it was so brief and amounted to “we need a statewide process”. That reflects the agenda of EAN which has as one of its goals to influence the siting commission. EAN’s interests were well represented on the siting commission, and their members made sure that local control got shut down as soon as it was brought up.

      To Louise McCarren’s credit, throughout the discussions she fought for town plans to have more weight in the PSB.

      But it really was a colossal waste of time. What did they recommend? Let’s see, it went something like this: town plans that conform to regional plans that conform to the CEP will be given more weight. But regional plans can’t say no, they have to designate areas for renewables to go. Turns planning commissions into siting commissions. The whole idea is so convoluted, even if everyone was on board it would take years to put into place.

  10. Christopher Irion :

    This a very troubling report. The behavior of Vermont PSB, if all of this is true, goes against the way most Vermonters believe business should be done. This sounds much more like California and it’s relationship to Pacific Gas and Electric where the culture of lack of oversight by the state and PG&E itself lead to a pipeline explosion that killed 8 people and created a wall of fire a thousand feet high.

    On April 1, 2014, PG&E was indicted by a federal grand jury in U.S. District Court, San Francisco, for multiple violations of the Natural Gas Pipeline Safety Act of 1968 relating to its record keeping and pipeline “integrity management” practices.[54] An additional indictment was issued by the grand jury on July 29, 2014, charging the company with obstruction of justice for lying to the NTSB regarding its pipeline testing policy, bringing the total number of counts in the indictment to 28.[55] Under the new indictment, the company could be fined as much as $1.3 billion, based on profit associated with the alleged misconduct, in addition to $2.5 billion for state regulatory violations. [ Van Derbeken, Jaxon (July 29, 2014). “PG&E accused of obstructing justice in San Bruno blast probe”. San Francisco Chronicle]

    Yes, this is California not Vermont. But it was exactly the same type of lack of transparency, collusion, intimidation and seeming abuse of authority by those in an overview position that is also happening here in Vermont. It’s a culture of “We know better” and “we can do what we want” that can lead slowly down the path to negative results.

    We can debate the costs and benefits of harnessing natural gas reserves, but whatever happens it must be within a culture of transparency, fairness and consumer protection. It is time to end the culture of unbridled capitalism that puts profit far above above benefits to the average citizens and has contributed to the poor economic environment average citizens now find themselves in.

    • roger tubby :

      I remember seeing an appropriate term for this:

      Californicated.

  11. Annette Smith :

    “We are part of the executive branch,” says Sheila Grace, attorney for the Department of Public Service Department. Scroll to 5 minutes and 40 seconds into this video to hear her say it at a PSB public hearing on one of the solar projects in Rutland held April 17, 2014: http://youtu.be/gkQ8Lxf4Pa0?list=UU7fuEzp1K6zpbnjR2OpgWBw.

    “The Department’s interest is defined by the public voting, electing the governor,” said PSB hearing officer John Cotter at a May 20, 2014 site visit for a Sudbury solar project. This is also captured on video.

    “We work directly for the governor.” Ed McNamara of DPS said at a July 21, 2014 CT PUC meeting about the REC/SPEED issue. I was on the phone for this meeting, there was a court reporter in the room so there will be a transcript.

    Importantly, Section 2(b) of Title 30, after listing the purposes of the Department (i.e. execution of all laws, etc.) states:

    “(b) In cases requiring hearings by the board, the department, through the director of public advocacy shall represent the interests of the people of the state, unless otherwise specified by law. In any hearing, the board may, if it determines that the public interest would be served, request the attorney general or a member of the bar to represent the public or the state.”

    The law is clear the public advocate is to represent the people of the state. Moreover, if the Governor has a different view the law is clear enough that the Board can differentiate and make sure that both views are represented. They are or at least may be in some instances separate. That should be recognized.

    • Melanie Peyser :

      Perhaps the Public Service Board and the Attorney General will listen to the over 25o postcards sent by residents of Vermont asking that independent counsel be appointed to represent the public since DPS appears to be unwilling or unable to do so.

  12. Gerry Silverstein :

    The sad and disturbing reality of VGS’s pipeline expansion southward from Chittenden County is that no matter how much lack of transparency dominates the process, no many how much false information is provided, and no matter how much the individual rights of Vermont citizens are compromised (some would say trampled upon), the approval process marches on.

    For those who believe a “progressive” Democratic governor and a Democratic supermajority Legislature always act to protect the interests and rights of the individual citizen, the VGS pipeline expansion is a seminal case study that argues otherwise.

    For the early history of the role of the Vermont DPS, the Public Service Board (PSB), and VGS in the pipeline expansion proposal, see:

    http://vtdigger.org/2012/04/23/silverstein-is-21-million-a-lot-of-money-not-compared-to-88-million/

    Note how much the cost of the project (now at $120 million and counting) has increased since the initial proposal to the Public Service Board

  13. Karen Glauber :

    Thank you for this important, factual information about how the Public Service Board and VGS work. It is always a rude awakening to learn when the agencies that are meant to protect the public, are guided by corporate interests first and foremost. Sadly, this is not the first time and state in which I have seen this mode of operation, but Vermonters hold Vermont leaders to a higher standard, and to that end, this article is vital information for all Vermonters to be aware of.

  14. Kathy Nelson :

    What happens when a concerned or involved citizen asks the DPS advocate a question? Here are some examples: I asked Public Advocate Director not to saddle the ratepayers with the bill for the synchronous condenser FERC and ISO demanded for the Lowell wind project because DPS and PSB should have known that the wind project would destabilize the grid before the project even got a permit. The first condenser burned up and was replaced, after the deadline, and let’s guess who’s paying for it. Answer from DPS? Well, you’re just one ratepayer and you pay to VEC not GMP so you shouldn’t be concerned about it. (except that VEC is a partner of of the Lowell wind disaster and responsible for a portion of it’s debts).

    On 29 Jul 2014, at a hearing of expert testimony on sound/noise problems associated with energy generation PSB director/dictator Jame Volz told members of the audience to direct their questions to the experts and not to the PSB Board. When Steve Therrien, victim of the Sheffield wind disaster, stood to ask a question of DPS Public Advocate Geoff Commons, who was invited as an “expert”, Steven Therrien was immediately cut off by Volz and told he could not question Mr. Commons (the exchange was videotaped). Mr. Commons, Public Advocate, hunkered down in his seat and did not intervene on Mr. Therrien’s behalf (which is his job) and later slinked out the back door.

    On 1 Aug 2014 I sent a question to Public Advocate Geoff Commons asking for clarification on the dispensation of the MET tower CPG that was foolishly awarded to Seneca Mountain Wind (aka Eolian Renewable Energy) by the PSB. Eolian has failed and withdrawn its leases and ISO interconnect application, but still holds a CPG for four MET towers, one of which has been raised on land it no longer has a lease for. Answer from DPS:
    By 7 Aug 2014 there had been no response from Mr. Commons to my e-mail request so I sent another e-mail asking for a response. I got an auto-response saying Mr. Commons was out of the office and to contact Angela Valentietti. I sent an e-mail to her and got an auto-response saying she was out of the office and contact Susan Pittsley. I’m getting frustrated with the run-around so I e-mailed Pittsley with a cc to DPS director Chris Recchia. Pittsley never responds but Recchia responds telling me he doesn’t like my “tone” and insinuates that I am abusing his staff. I respond to Recchia that in no way have I abused his staff and that if he wasn’t such a poor manager then there would be a lot fewer frustrated citizens in VT.

    These are the kind of things that happen when dealing with the DPS. I even witnessed Sen. Hartwell bringing the hammer down on Chris Recchia and his former boss Deb Markowitz (ANR director) for their lack of public advocacy and his (Hartwell’s) desire to have an outside agency advocate for the public because neither the ANR or the DPS were capable of doing so.

    The Russians, whose miseries with corrupt government are the stuff of legend, have a word for people like Chris Recchia, Deb Markowitz and Peter Shumlin, apparatchik.
    Apparatchik is defined as: An apparatchik is someone who enters a pre-existing human hierarchy (like a corporation, or government) purely for egotistical reasons of his/her own. In other words, they have no sympathy or interest in THE ORIGINAL TOPIC OR CAUSE for which the corporation, government or forum was created; rather, they simply see the hierarchy as a ladder by which they can cynically achieve their own selfish aims (money, power, visibility, etc.)

    • Rob Pforzheimer :

      These other definitions of apparatchik apply as well:

      An unquestioningly loyal subordinate, especially of a political leader or organization.

      Members of the “apparat” were frequently transferred between different areas of responsibility (Recchia was previously the deputy commissioner at ANR), usually with little or no actual training for their new areas of responsibility.

      It is often considered a derogatory term, with negative connotations in terms of the quality, competence, and attitude of a person thus described.

  15. walter judge :

    Ms. Foster either doesn’t get it, or chooses to engage in intentional character assassination/propaganda against the Dept. of Public Service. The DPS advocates what it determines is in the good of the entire state, or the majority thereof, not a small subset of people who don’t like this pipeline. Just because the DPS doesn’t agree with Foster’s anti – pipeline position doesn’t give her the right to make outrageous accusations against them and call them names, as she does in this piece.

    • Jane Palmer :

      Mr Judge,
      My husband and I participated in the 248 process Docket No. 7970 regarding the transmission pipeline Vermont Gas is attempting to build through our area. Time after time, the DPS agreed or parroted back the suggestions of VGS in testimony and the Public Service Board pretty much did what the DPS suggested.
      We represented ourselves, pro se, because the cost of an attorney is beyond our means. We never thought to ask VGS during discovery why they never submitted a revised cost estimate when they changed the route significantly. We were too busy trying to read through the piles and piles of documents the case generated. The DPS should have asked at that time, what the new costs would be. And when they were told back in March, that the costs had soared by 40%, they should have requested a new cost analysis from VGS. That is their job! They are the ones with the staff to ask the right questions. Who else, if not the DPS is there to ask those questions?
      We are small business owners. We can’t help but scratch our heads about the way this state seems to run the state’s business. Someone needs to be watching the store!

      What very few people seem to realize is that even frogs, salamanders and dead indigenous people have more representation than the public does in the 248 process. The DPS does not defend the rights of the public…the sole purpose seems to be to further the needs of the utilities if that is the will of the current governor.

    • Melanie Peyser :

      Mr. Judge,

      It would be helpful if you could identify exactly which of Ms. Foster’s “accusations” regarding the Department of Public Service you find to be “outrageous.”

      I understand your interest in defending Vermont Gas Systems. Unless I’m mistaken, your law firm advocates for Vermont Gas in proceedings before the Public Service Board on Phase I of the Addison Natural Gas Pipeline. Doesn’t your firm also represent Vermont Gas in matters, over which the Department of Public Service has oversight such as the yet unresolved increase in the cost of the project (and the alleged three-month delay by VGS in notifying the Board of that increase)? If so, it also makes sense that you would want to put in a good word for VGS and DPS given your firm’s role in representing VGS on its application for a CPG for Phase II. Won’t the success of that endeavor likely depend at least in part on the Department’s testimony and recommendations to the Board? If I’m confusing you with another Walter Judge please accept my apologies.

      Regardless, without specifics, neither Ms. Foster nor anyone else can respond to your own accusations of her except to say that you’re absolutely right about “calling [DPS] names.” It is not Ms. Foster’s anti-pipeline position that gives her that right. It is the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution that grants her and everyone else the right to criticize government.

  16. walter judge :

    Ms. Foster obviously hates the pipeline proposal and hates VGS. Now she hates the DPS and chooses to call them names. That is her first amendment right, but it doesn’t make it right. She seems to think there’s only one correct position on the pipeline — hers — and there’s only one correct side for the DPS to take — that of the dissenting landowners. She’s simply wrong on both counts. It is entirely reasonable for the DPS to have come to the conclusion that the pipeline is in the best interests of the state as a whole. Having come to that conclusion, the DPS cannot, and cannot be expected to, assist a small group of anti’s. So if Ms. Foster wants to respond to this reality by making wild accusations that the DPS is a group of terrible, awful, evil group of people, that is her right but it is neither reasonable, responsible, nor appropriate.

    • Melanie Peyser :

      Ahhh. I get it now. But, is a good offense really the best defense you can muster?

      Is your position really that since DPS determined that the project was in the public good (before doing any analysis), its job has been only to repeat that conclusion over and over? Do you really think that DPS has no obligation to review new evidence that might contradict the Department’s original position or the standards set forth in Section 248?

      Do you genuinely believe that DPS’ job is to shut up and accept all filings from VGS at face value regardless of whether the project will cost ratepayers 80% more than originally proposed when the Expansion Fund was established and regardless of whether the increases buck industry trends?

      In DPS’ shoes, would you really be offended by the suggestion that you should check whether labor costs are higher than expected not because of a pipeline construction boom but rather because a local hotel is packed with out-of-state workers when Vermonters, who were apparently going to get construction jobs on the project, could be sleeping in their own beds for free?

      Does it really not matter to you how expensive this pipeline gets or whether there is any due process for ratepayers or anyone else?

      Could it possibly be true that here in Vermont, we’re honorable people only until the first time we criticize the system or a VGS filing? Should we all agree with you that DPS’ open love for this pipeline before it had even been proposed is grounds for admiration? Was their complicity in the attempt to rush the start of construction before all permits were issued justifiable even when they knew full well that the proposed budget was off by 40%?

      You really do think that the credibility of any dissenter is suspect by virtue of the dissent itself, don’t you?

      Accordingly, no one should check facts. No one should point out forgotten history. No one should demand transparency or accountability. That would be unreasonable, irresponsible, inappropriate even!

      IDPS’ silent acquiescence is becoming more and more understandable with each of your missives:

      Ms. Foster is a private citizen. Despite the pervasive paternalistic attitude of VGS and our state government (as reflected in your comments), she had the courage to stand up and state her concerns. She’s seen the attack-dog approach used on others. She’s witnessed the attempts to paint anyone, who doesn’t agree with VGS, as an extremist, a greedy property owner, or an insatiable customer – regardless of the facts. She’s seen the intimidation, and she’s seen the age-old classic of trying to undermine the person to avoid addressing the argument.

      Those tactics are all too familiar for her.

      I suspect that they are for the staff over at DPS too.

      What DPS staffer wouldn’t pretend that $121.6 million dollars to serve 3,000 customers makes sense when questioning the economic benefits of the project would likely result in a comment like yours above? Who wouldn’t just shrug and think (but not say) “whatever” when told that a smidgen of biomass in the pipes makes natural gas “renewable.” Who wouldn’t throw up her hands and throw away that utility ratemaking guide upon realizing that it’s unacceptable to point out that VGS’ purported savings to customers from switching to natural gas actually exceed the current bills of most oil and propane customers? To do otherwise, would be to risk being called unreasonable, irresponsible, or outrageous.

      If it’s now acceptable to badger a private citizen without identifying a single factual inaccuracy in her commentary surely it must also be OK to get a DPS employee fired for pointing out an inconvenient truth.

      Vermonters are paying attention.

      We’re unwilling to shut up and put up with a project that no longer makes sense.

      We do not serve at the pleasure of the governor, and we have no obligation to be seen and not heard just because Gaz Metro thinks that a certificate of public good at $86 million is transferrable for carte blanche to spend customers’ hard-earned money.

      VGS and its multi-million dollar legal team can bully DPS into complacency, but you cannot bully Vermonters into silence or out of our right to due process.

      • roger tubby :

        Bravo. I would not like to be on the opposing side of a debate with you.

        What you are bringing up, I believe, is the unwillingness of (un)elected officials to revisit their decisions based on new facts.

        This should be the _new_ normal – be prepared to change your mind.

        I fear that some individuals/groups don’t have open minds because they have enjoyed personal benefits by interested entities. Or, perhaps more charitably, because once they’ve stated their position they can’t be caught changing it.

        • roger tubby :

          VTDigger: And I’d like a way to edit my prior comments….

          After commenting, I realized that this sub-thread was really dealing with a very interested party (walter judge) that represents the company’s interests. I hate to say this but his remarks here without acknowledging his financial (legal fee) interest is dishonest and very questionable for someone in the legal field. Next time, you might want to post as “anonymous”…

    • Jane Palmer :

      So, you never said…is this the same Walter Judge, a lawyer with the Vermont firm Downs Rachlin Martin?
      Are you getting paid to comment here on VTDigger? Because if you are commenting as an attorney, and one who is representing VGS, then this is not just a little creepy…it seems downright unethical for you to tell others what is reasonable, responsible, or appropriate .

    • Maren Vasatka :

      I too would like to know if this is the Walter Judge that is an attorney with the law firm Downs Rachlin and Martin that represents Vermont Gas.

      I would also like to know what benefits you get for publicly defending the DPS.

      The nepotism within the utilities, their legal representation, the DPS, PSB and our legislators is simply embarrassing. It is apparent that these projects just can’t do it on their own merits.

  17. Ron Pulcer :

    Regarding: ‘The “ratepayers,” by the way, are the 45,000 VGS customers in Chittenden and Franklin counties who are already being gouged to the tune of $4.4 million annually for 20 years to pay for this very pipeline expansion.’

    ‘“Vermont Gas Systems, supported by the Vermont Department of Public Service, has proposed the establishment of the System Expansion and Reliability Fund for VGS.”’

    Beware that when an elected official or candidate promises “not to raise taxes”, they don’t mention that they are not necessarily against allowing companies to add more / higher “fees” to your monthly bill, and they surely won’t bring that up to constituents during election season.

    I recently heard that after Phase III to Rutland, there is supposedly a planned Phase IV and beyond. I don’t have any proof, but just a verbal mention from someone following the issue, about the desire to expand pipeline to Glen Falls, NY and beyond. The reason is to be able to hookup to NG coming from Pennsylvania, giving two routes for NG (Canada and U.S.). I don’t know if the Phase IV plan is true or not. BUT, Rutland, VT is not the end of the world, and Rutland has a small population compared to other nearby states.

    IF the Phase IV plan is true, then the precedent has been set up requiring the ratepayer funding for, say 20 years as for northern VT customers, for subsequent phases of pipeline construction.

    IF the Phase IV plan is true, then the candidates for legislature and the Chamber of Commerce, et al, in Rutland would then be selling us on “cheap NG” without telling us about the rest of the ongoing monthly charges.

    Not to mention also the “last mile” costs to get NG from the main pipeline to your road or neighborhood … and if / where that is even cost-effective (or not). In other words, we are being sold “cheap NG”, but you might well still be on heating oil after the pipeline passes by (possibly to a subsequent construction phase).

    If anyone knows any specific info about whether there is a Phase IV construction plan beyond Rutland, please let us all know.

  18. Jane Palmer :

    In Docket No. 7970 VGS’ petition for Phase 1 of the ANGP, Don Gilbert’s prefiled testimony states that hook up to the national grid is indeed, part of the plan. Use this link and click on A. Donald Gilbert, Jr.
    http://psb.vermont.gov/docketsandprojects/gas/7970/petition%2C%20prefiled%20testimony%20and%20exhibits#Direct%20Testimony
    See page 9, A11, line 3
    Mr Gilbert says, “Expanding natural gas service to Addison County is the first step towards a long term plan to serve Rutland and eventually connect Vermont to the US natural gas system.”

    This is the REAL prize…this project is not for Vermont or Vermonters.

    • Ron Pulcer :

      Thanks Jane.

      Since there is a precedent decision by Vermont PSB for current customers to pay an ongoing fee in gas bill, for purposes of subsequent pipeline construction, then it seems likely that all Phase I, Phase II and Phase III customers will be paying an additional monthly fee, not just the per-unit cost that is being advertised by VT Gaz and politicians and other biz groups.

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