Business & Economy

Hundreds of natural gas pipeline opponents in Addison County dominate PSB hearing

Public Service Board members listen as Craig Zondag speaks against a proposal to build a natural gas pipeline in Addison County on Tuesday in Middlebury. Photo by Andrew Stein/VTDigger
Public Service Board members listen as Craig Zondag speaks against a proposal to build a natural gas pipeline in Addison County on Tuesday in Middlebury. Photo by Andrew Stein/VTDigger

MIDDLEBURY — About 600 Vermonters thronged to the Middlebury Union Middle School on Tuesday night to oppose a natural gas pipeline proposed for Addison County.

A rowdy faction of the opposition did not represent all of the views at the Vermont Public Service Board’s second public hearing on the proposed expansion by Vermont Gas Systems, but the voluminous pleas to protect Vermont’s environment drowned out many of the pipeline’s proponents, who said Vermont and the world are not yet ready to heat solely with renewable energy resources.

As the public hearing proceeded in the middle school’s orange-streaked gymnasium, the boisterous crowd slipped from the control of the three-member panel. The board — clearly exasperated at times — listened patiently to dozens of Vermonters who spoke over the course of the three-hour-plus event.

The tension was palpable in the 90-degree room. The hearing’s tone wavered from passionate to theatrical to downright angry and threatening. There were moments when board members scolded the audience, and when members of the public, in turn, yelled at the board.

What sparked the heated gathering is a proposed 41.2-mile, $86.6 million natural gas transmission line into the heart of Addison County. The public hearing comes in advance of a week of technical hearings in Montpelier that will cover a range of topics, from the proposal’s economics to its environmental impacts.

Ultimately, the burden of proof falls on VTGas, which must convince the board that the project is in the public good.

VTGas executives argue that natural gas is a cheaper, cleaner alternative to propane and oil, fuels that are widely used to heat homes and businesses in Addison County. Officials from the company and their supporters frequently bill natural gas as a bridge fuel to a fully renewable energy future.

But dozens of opponents who spoke out on Tuesday vehemently disagree.

“Gas is not a bridge; it’s a gangplank!” many cried out to the board.

‘You should be ashamed’

The board had intended for the testimony to alternate from opponent to proponent throughout the course of the evening. But after a handful of residents spoke, and only one was in favor of the pipeline, the board grew indignant that members of the audience had falsely identified their position on the project before the hearing.

Weary members of the Public Service Board (from left) David Coen, James Volz and John Burke. Photo by Andrew Stein/VTDigger
Weary members of the Public Service Board (from left) David Coen, James Volz and John Burke. Photo by Andrew Stein/VTDigger

“People who have signed up have not been honest about this,” board chairman James Volz said.

John Burke, another board member, gave the crowd a stern rebuke.

“How are we going to feel about taking seriously the comments you give us, if you’re not going to play by the rules?” he said. “Seriously, no matter what you say, to do something when you’re not saying the truth, hopefully it gnaws at you a little. A lot of your concerns were whether the truth was told to you, and you should be ashamed of not telling the truth.”

Will Bennington, a 24-year-old organic farmer from Monkton, is an organizer for the anti-pipeline group Rising Tide Vermont. Bennington and other members of Rising Tide formed an ad-hoc group called Vermont Intergenerational Stewards to intervene in the Public Service Board’s permitting process, but were not granted party status. Instead, he led a protest outside the hearing.

Bennington is one of many Vermonters who have expressed deep dissatisfaction this past year with a board process often deemed “citizen unfriendly.”

When he was given the microphone, Bennington laid into the board.

“The citizen’s guide to the 248 process does not lay out rules, and it certainly doesn’t lay out the rules that you impose on us tonight, which were different from the rules in March,” he said. “That is completely unfair, completely undemocratic shows, and you are rolling your eyes at me! And you are not supposed to respond to me during this process!”

After cooling his temper, Bennington told the board that the Department of Public Service had not responded to him or his peers on questions they submitted more than a month ago. The department, which is a separate entity from the board, is charged with representing the public’s interest in Public Service Board proceedings.

The department, however, falls under the wing of the executive branch, which is subject to the governor’s political will. Gov. Peter Shumlin supports the natural gas pipeline.

“How do we know that they are actually paying attention to the people?” Bennington asked the board. “We have no voice in this process.”

Jonathan Shapiro, a member of the anti-pipeline group Rising Tide Vermont, posed as Captain Hook from J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. Photo by Andrew Stein/VTDigger
Jonathan Shapiro, a member of the anti-pipeline group Rising Tide Vermont, posed as Captain Hook from J.M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan.” Photo by Andrew Stein/VTDigger

Jonathan Shapiro, who is also a member of Rising Tide Vermont, echoed a similar sentiment after his testimony, where he posed as Captain Hook from J.M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan.”

“This is a process where money talks, and we don’t have it,” he said.

The House and Senate Committees on Natural Resources and Energy are convening at the Statehouse on Sept. 25 to discuss changes to the board’s permitting process. The Legislature has the power to alter its structure.

The wall of opposition

The environment was front and center as dozens of Vermonters voiced relentless opposition to the pipeline.

The chief issue they repeatedly criticized was the state’s growing reliance on an industry that has thrived by hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

Since Congress exempted fracking from the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act, the practice has become common in the United States. Fracking 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. VTGas uses natural gas from Alberta fracking operations.

Environmentalists say fracking is poisoning North American water and land resources. In 2012, Vermont was the first state in the United States to ban the practice.

Several Vermonters on Tuesday told the board that it would be hypocritical for the state to advance an industry that relies on a practice the state has prohibited.

“I want you to realize Vermont said no to fracking, and the pipeline is part of fracking,” Elsie Kiley of Charlotte said. “Vermont does not want the pipeline.”

Other Vermonters argued that expanding natural gas would be counterintuitive to the state’s Comprehensive Energy Plan goal of drawing 90 percent of the its energy from renewable sources by 2050.

That same plan, however, provides the guidance that the Department of Public Service, the Public Service Board and Vermont Gas Systems “should continue to evaluate and take advantage of cost-effective opportunities to extend the natural gas service territory.”

Heavy-hitting Montpelier insiders appeared at the hearing. Paul Burns, director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, voiced his firm disapproval of the pipeline extension.

“Current Vermont state policy is unequivocal as it relates to both fracking and the need to develop renewable energy,” he said. “A new fracked gas pipeline runs counter to both polices, and it should be denied a Certificate of Public Good by the Public Service Board.”

Burns said wood chips, wood pellets and geothermal heating pumps would be cleaner sources of heat than gas. Renewable energy may also soon generate electric heat in the near future.

Mary Powell, CEO of Green Mountain Power, says electric heat using renewable energy is a long way off.

“We’re doing the heat pump pilot project, with air-source heat pumps, and the pump uses electricity, but we’re a long ways off,” she said in an interview.

After the hearing, VTGas CEO Don Gilbert said he didn’t think the opponents of the pipeline had drastically different values than those of his company.

“When people think they can get off of fracked fuel by not using fracked fuel, well oil and propane are fracked,” he said. “Vermonters have a choice. This is just giving Vermonters a choice.”

VTGas pipes natural gas to more than 15 communities across Chittenden and Franklin counties. Gilbert said the company has not experienced opposition to a pipeline like this before.

“Enosburg is a good example,” he said. “People are very excited about the natural gas service up there.”

The company is adding 14 miles of natural gas distribution line to serve 490 residential and 110 commercial customers in Enosburg.

The proponents

While they were few and far between, proponents of the pipeline were present to voice their support, and among them were influential members of the business community.

Andy Mayer, a Cornwall resident and president of the Addison County Chamber of Commerce, read a statement supporting the pipeline on behalf of the chamber’s board of directors.

“We believe it will have a significant economic benefit for our area,” he said. “This will help them save money immediately, allowing them to hire workers they need or pay the ones they have better. They will also be able to invest in their facilities and equipment. Our communities would also greatly benefit, whether it’s schools or municipal buildings they could certainly use the help on their tight budgets.”

Bill Flood, the engineering director for UTC Aerospace Systems in Vergennes, says natural gas will help the designer and manufacturer of aircraft management systems maintain its competitive edge. The company employs more than 800 people, and Flood says it spend about a third of its annual expenditures in the state.

“Our business competes globally. To retain our competitive position as a viable aerospace business, we must provide cost-effective solutions by continuously investing not only in our people but in our processes as well as our infrastructure,” he said. “ Our company supports the natural gas expansion project for our factory in Vergennes. A, natural gas is a more cost-effective solution for our energy needs. B, natural gas eliminates a safety concern we have as well as an environmental risk associated with heating oil that’s trucked in.”

Donna Donahue, the former president of the Better Middlebury Partnership, a local business group, says natural gas is crucial for economic development in her area.

“We have to be competitive with other places,” she said. “Whether it’s a 25 percent or 40 percent reduction in fuel costs, that’s very significant to any business owner. That business owner hires my neighbors, hires our children, and is part of our future. I don’t believe, and I would love to see, that we don’t need gas or oil. But that’s not the point we’re at.”

Donna Donahue, former president of the Better Middlebury Partnership, a local business group, speaks in favor of the pipeline. Photo by Andrew Stein/VTDigger
Donna Donahue, former president of the Better Middlebury Partnership, a local business group, speaks in favor of the pipeline. Photo by Andrew Stein/VTDigger

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  • walter judge

    “Our view on the pipeline is the only legitimate view. Therefore, anyone who supports the pipeline need not, should not, be heard. There is no need for discussion on this issue. Ours are the only voices that should be heard. We do not need to follow any rules of order or politeness or civility.”

    • Mary Martin

      We took from a lesson taught to us at the first meeting in Hinesburg, Vermont Gas had all of their big business supporters (Cabot and International Paper are just 2 examples) signed up to speak before any of the regular public could. We were following the rules imposed on us then. Some of us came at 5:00 to line up so we could be heard this time. Then the Public Service Board changed the rules. “Public” Service Board not “Big Business” Service Board. The majority of us were polite and civil which is not easy when you are once again being treated unfairly.

  • Annette Smith

    Here’s the video of the meeting:

    If I could find the video of the first public hearing (there is one, I looked and can’t find it), it would show that at the first PSB public hearing, supporters arrived early and signed up for almost all the time slots in the first hour. Many people with concerns left when 10 pm came along and they still had not been called to testify, while speaker after speaker, likely recruited by VGS, spoke in support of the pipeline.

    Last night, one person pointed out to the Board, after their admonishment, that the Board had changed the rules in mid-stream, and asked them to come up with consistent rules.

    Also at the first hearing, select board members from the town of Middlebury, which is an Intervenor, were allowed to speak. The Board says that Intervenors get their chance at the technical hearings, so they are not allowed to speak. This also happened in Lowell at the PSB public hearing on the wind project. I did find that link:, it’s two hours. A selectman from the town of Lowell, which was an Intervenor, was allowed to speak. But Ben Rose of the Green Mountain Club was told he could not speak because GMC was intervening. Ben argued with the Chair but was not allowed to speak.

    The public has been given good reason by the Board itself to question what the rules are. When the Board applies them consistently from the beginning of a case, they can expect that the rules will be respected. When the Board consistently shows a bias towards supporters of projects, they are the ones stifling the discussion.

  • Jennifer Vyhnak

    Oh my goodness, Walter. Shame on you. Only a fool would think that you oppose the pipeline. I smell a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and so does everyone else who reads your comment.

    • Walter Judge

      Your comment makes no sense. It is painfully obvious from my comment that I support the pipeline extension.

      And I should be ashamed because I dare express my opinion about some of the mob-style tactics of the opponents? Your personal attack validates my point.

  • I am proud to know many of the opponents of this proposed pipeline. I thank them for their Testimony, words that many of us simply cannot express or feel powerless to. The big Canadian owned Vermont Gaz company owns no right to take private property. Likewise, going under the lake to the paper mill is wrong. The terrain here will not safely support high pressure gaz lines. New York said No. Vermont said no fracking so what is there to discuss? The arrogance of this company seals my opposition.

    • Ben Hart

      Mary, while Vermont Gas may be owned by Gaz Metro, control of the company is maintained in Vermont. While expanding the pipeline may benefit the company, it also has the potential to benefit thousands of Vermonters who are struggling to make ends meet. We have the potential to make a difference in the lives of our children and to reduce carbon emissions by 25%. Why not take it?

  • Jane Palmer

    I was there last night and the proponents WERE heard. The frustration coming from the opposition is because they feel they are NOT being heard. At the first public hearing last March, the Board let VGS supporters sign up multiple speakers and VGS knew to get them in early. They allowed speakers from parties to the case as well as representatives from International Paper and Rutland speak, neither of which are included in the Phase 1 of the project and this docket before the Board for this hearing. So the first hour was dominated by supporters of the project..the crucial time to establish a tone for the media who generally leave after the first hour or so of a meeting like this.
    The Board sent out a memo before this meeting stating clearly that the sign up would begin at 6:30 and that “members of the public wishing to speak will be required to enter their name and town of residence on a sign-up sheet” There was mention that you would have to indicate whether you oppose or support the project on this sign up sheet. Opposition speakers were there in droves and early and were hit broadside with this new stipulation. The Board’s intention was to even things out and alternate pros with cons. Maybe the Board was just trying to be fair, but this entire process is so chocked full of rules and regulations, it would seem that the Board would not make a change like that without first warning the public of the change. Alternating pros and cons would have just given the meeting a balanced facade when it was very clear that the opposition was in the majority.
    If people sound angry and frustrated and “on the edge” perhaps it is time for elected officials to pay attention to the people. These are not a bunch of hot headed lunatics..they are a cross section of intelligent, well educated and conscientious Vermonters who care about the future of this state and this planet.

  • Annette Smith

    Here is the video of the first PSB public hearing held in March

  • Jennifer Baker

    In addition to the Board requiring speakers to write down whether they were supporters or opponents, there was a second stipulation: you were supposed to put down whether or not you spoke at the previous public hearing in March. If you answered yes, you were automatically bumped to the back of the line.

    The Order that the Board issued on Aug. 30 had neither of these stipulations in it. If it had, people would have accepted them. If the Board had announced they were going to throw all the names in a hat and pull them out at random (which at this point might have been a better procedural tactic) people would have accepted that. What people STRONGLY objected to, was to be told one set of rules ten days ago, and to arrive to find that the rules were manipulated in a way that would benefit the petitioner. The net result of the “alternating” viewpoints would have been to have supporters, who were far outnumbered by opponents, be able to jump the line ahead of people who got there early and were waiting patiently to sign up.

    When the hearing opened, Chairman Volz announced at the start that it would end at 10pm. So, yes, there were people who were deprived of the opportunity to speak, they were opponents who answered honestly that they had spoken at the March hearing and their names were skipped, then at the end, after waiting around for three hours in a very hot gym (and after coming an hour early to wait in line to sign up) they were not allowed to speak because there was no more time. So much for being honest. Ironically, this included the Middlebury resident whose very polite letter to the Board asking them to clarify the hearing rules in advance at least in part resulted in the Board’s Aug 30 Order.

    The net result of these poor policy decisions was that it got the hearing off to a hostile start and raised the level of tension in the room, which was unfortunate. However, amidst the more colorful appearances that got the most media attention there were thoughtful citizens presenting articulate and intelligent statements. I encourage people to watch the video, and judge for themselves.

  • Mary Martin

    I do not know Donna Donahue. I’m sure she is usually a fine person, but she admonished the tactics of the opponents while her antics were less than above board.

    She warned that “if we use fear mongering and intimidation of neighbors to achieve our end, I think we’ve taken a really bad turn.”.

    Donna spoke these words in the first hour of the meeting because she jumped to the head of the queue without waiting her turn to sign up to speak.

    I say if we lie about our involvement and ride roughshod over our neighbors then we have indeed taken a really bad turn.

  • Greg Lapworth

    The opponents main tool in everything has been fear and intimidation. What on earth did everyone expect? You know the usual suspects and their methods. This is the mode of losers. They know the majority of people are for the pipeline but they will use any method including lies and deceit to win. Expect more and worse…….tantrums and noise.

  • Dan Carver

    You would think, in retrun for blocking the line, the opponents would have offered to contribute a couple of million dollars per year to a fund whose mission is to pay 25% to 40% of the heating bills of the residents and businesses that would be eligible for gas services, if the line had gone through. What the frack were they thinking?

    • Matt Fisken

      just a few wild guesses:

      there is more to life than money.

      the average home/business can save 25-40% of its energy costs without switching to a new fuel.

      natural gas is the methadone to our oil addiction.

      the fracked natural gas bubble is going to make the dot-com and housing bubbles seem benign.

    • Mary Martin

      Hi, Dan
      I am afraid you are sorely mistaken. We in no way blocked the line. We helped the PSB employees to move the line along rather quickly once they started taking names. I tried to greet everyone who came in and ask them if they wanted to speak. If they did, I explained the queue; if they didn’t, I told them they didn’t need to wait in the lobby. I encouraged everyone to go into the gym and take a seat because it didn’t look like there were enough chairs for everyone. It didn’t matter where they stood on the issue. I treated every person the same. One woman confided to me that she was hesitant to talk in favor of the pipeline. I assured her we were all equal citizens and she should be heard.
      I really don’t know where you got the idea that we were blocking the line. I’m afraid you’ve been duped.

      • Walter Judge

        Is this response to Mr. Carver supposed to be sarcastic? You do realize, don’t you, that he wasn’t talking about the “line” to get into the meeting. He was quite evidently and obviously talking about the “pipeline.” If your intention was to give a sardonic response to Mr. Carver, it didn’t work.

    • Gregory Lapworth

      The line will go through; we have to endure this every time there is change. Bear with!

  • Elisabeth Hebert

    That’s good, Mr. Lapworth, that you fear good arguments to the point where they intimidate you! That the majority of Vermonters are FOR the pipeline is prooven by the number of opponents, I suspect?

    • Gregory Lapworth

      A handful of the usual protesters do not make a majority; you are just noisy and got what you wished for…attention.