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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  • Matt Fisken

    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 organic beef. There simply is not enough supply to meet the existing demand.

    Gilbert is correct that the prices of all fossil fuels would increase if fracking were somehow limited or banned on a federal/international level. Clamping down on fracking will never happen, though, because it would crush the US/global economy, which no government would do (except for one that does not have any natural gas to extract).

    With these red herrings filleted and grilled, the most important question appears to have been avoided thus far — will the supply and price of natural gas remain steady assuming the demand increases through extended pipelines and increased burning to generate electricity?

    The question might not be asked during these proceedings because the answer is too inconvenient for proponents of this pipeline.

    I would recommend reading this interview if you are interested in learning about the reality of the situation:

  • 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

    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

      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 this travesty will stop appealing to the indifference of the PSB and the arrogant disrespect of governor Shumlin and start to focus on shoring up their municipal rights and start proceedings to rescind act 248 and act 246. By doing so they will gut the power of the PSB to wantonly destroy our towns through their rubber-stamping permits for their corporate masters.

      • walter judge

        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

      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 is true of so many things…what VGS says is too good to be true. Now we oppose the build out of fossil fuel infrastructure because we care about the environment and we care about what happens on the OTHER END of the pipeline. Vermonters who want to hook more people up to fracked gas are the real NYMBY’s because they don’t want the fracking to go on here, but they want the benefits from it here in our green state. Ask yourself this question: What does anyone stand to gain from opposing this pipeline? The most we can hope for is that we help prevent more damage to our precious earth and stave off climate change a little longer. What do proponents stand to gain from this pipeline? Most just want to save cash and they don’t know or don’t care what happens elsewhere. It makes no sense to get a state hooked on a fossil fuel that we have been living without when the process of extracting it is destroying the environment. Hell no, we don’t want this in our backyard…We don’t want it in anyone’s backyard. So, you can call us anything you want to…we will still fight for what is right. That’s who we are.

  • Stan Jones

    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 “red herring” issue. It cannot be argued with any evidence other than contrived consensus among disingenuous scientists. Is Al Gore really a trustworthy source for “global warming” facts?
    Please Vermont, do your homework – really investigate this whole thing and quit clinging to your bibles of contention. This goes for both sides. Natural gas is factually a safer form of energy. That was always the desire of the environmental community. Now it appears the bar is being moved. What will it take? What can be done to make anyone happy?
    The NIMBY principle will always be an issue. That does not make anyone a “cause celeb” for or against an issue. It just makes them victims. But no one knows what, where or the circumstances of the outcomes when lines are run through their properties, just revolt and accusastions. This is ludicrous and insane to throw darts at each other. Work it out!

  • Moshe Braner

    “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 produce. This won’t last. Decreased drilling (already happened) and rising demand (as generating plants are converted, pipelines are extended, export terminals built…) means a much higher price within this decade. Read Richard Heinberg’s new book “Snake Oil”.

    That said, it is true that oil and propane also come in part from fracking these days. Most of the drilling has shifted to oil since it’s profitable, unlike gas at current prices. Note that fracking has not made oil cheaper – that is because it is easier to transport overseas, thus we compete for it on a global market. (And we still import about a half the oil we use, despite all the false talk of energy independence.) The same will happen with natural gas when export terminals are built.

    And the price of electricity will follow suit.

    What’s one to do to afford heat? Insulate!

  • Elisabeth Hebert

    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 so stupid to believe this reckless consuming works for ever? Or do we just not care what is going to happen to our grandchildren?

  • Hattie Nestel

    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

    I second Hattie!

  • Stan Jones

    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.

  • Mike Kerin

    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

    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 take your heads out of the clouds and look at things without so much bias, or allowing others to use their bias to influence what really matters. As for being libertarian, I probably lean a little more to the conservative side. As for Montana, I wish Vermont had the income per capita they’re having right now – all due to producing energy. As for most of the people leaving information here, you all have fun at your anti cost saving rally this weekend. Are you all related?

    • Matt Fisken

      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

    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 wells are vertical and the fracked area is (much) less than 500. The horizontal technology was developed to produce oil and gas from historically low producing geologic formations. The horizontal wells can be a mile long and the full horizontal portion of the well is fracked. (The wells are drilled vertically until almost at depth. The drillers then using directional drilling techniques, drill a hole that is relatively horizontal through the producing rock. With some of these wells 10,000 feet deep, it is not likely that the fractures propagated in the rock intersect drinking water aquifers, it is more likely that fracking fluids and possible natural gas, etc are lost to the formation through incomplete cementing of the casing.

    Everyone who drives to a hearing is using Fracked petroleum products.

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