Climate caucus seeks reconsideration of pipeline’s permit - VTDigger

Climate caucus seeks reconsideration of pipeline’s permit

June Tierney

June Tierney, the commissioner of the Public Service Department. File photo by Erin Mansfield/VTDigger

Legislators are calling for a controversial pipeline’s permit to be reopened, voting Thursday in support of a letter making the request to Public Service Commissioner June Tierney.

The Climate Solutions Caucus, made up of more than 60 legislators from both chambers, voted almost unanimously in favor of the ask.

The letter cites a doubling in the cost of Vermont Gas Systems’ 41-mile pipeline extension to Addison County, new evidence of climate damage associated with natural gas, safety violations on the project, and other concerns.

Climate caucus members are asking Tierney to request that the Public Service Board reopen the case involving the pipeline’s certificate of public good, which the board granted in 2013.

The letter, supporters say, is meant to provide direction to the Department of Public Service. It’s at least in part a response to remarks Tierney and colleagues made last month at a forum on the pipeline, where department officials said their job is to carry out what the Legislature puts into law.

Austin Davis, the policy and communications coordinator for the advocacy group 350Vermont, told caucus members that more than 150 people showed up at the event, “and it’s really clear that there’s a lot of concern around this pipeline.”

“They got the answers they continually get from the (Department of Public Service and the Public Service Board), which is, ‘Hey, we just do what the Legislature tells us,’” Davis said. “Which is something we’re now bringing to you as, ‘Do you want this to be done in your name?’”

The pipeline’s cost has doubled since the board awarded the permit, Davis said. Moreover, the company building it, Vermont Gas Systems, has yet to show a need exists within Vermont to justify the project, Davis said.

In 2013 natural gas was considered a “bridge fuel” — meaning a less-harmful alternative to other fossil fuels, to be used during a transition to still better energy sources, Davis said. But since that time, market forces have led natural gas extraction firms to use increasingly destructive recovery methods, such as fracking.

Natural gas is composed almost exclusively of methane. Studies since the pipeline was approved have shown that, although methane emits less carbon dioxide than other fossil fuels when burned, pulling it out of the Earth releases enough of the potent greenhouse gas to nullify its supposed reduction in harm to the environment, Davis said.

“Cradle to grave, this is a very high-emission fuel source … and we should treat it like that now that the research shows that,” he said.

Caucus members expressed strong support for the letter.

Chris Pearson

Sen. Chris Pearson, D/P-Chittenden. File photo by Erin Mansfield/VTDigger

“I like this letter, I like sending a letter,” said Sen. Chris Pearson, D/P-Burlington. “I think it’s important that we say something.”

One caucus member stood alone when the caucus chairwoman, Rep. Mary Sullivan, D-Burlington, asked whether anyone disagreed with the letter’s contents.

The real problem at hand is not in how companies carry natural gas across the landscape, said Rep. Curt McCormack, D-Burlington. Rather, the problem lies with consumers, he said.

“I think this is a major distraction from the issues at hand,” McCormack said. “I think how we convey fuel is not the point — consumption is.

“I don’t like to see pipes … but my issue is, we’re expanding because we’re expanding consumption.”

McCormack’s was the only dissenting voice in the room.

Later, McCormack said he expected to be the sole dissenter.

“It’s hard for politicians to tell people, ‘We’re the problem,’ but we are,” McCormack said in an interview.

He said the Legislature, and the climate caucus, ought to focus on legislation dealing with fossil fuel consumption, instead of pointing fingers at the suppliers and sellers.

“It’s a way to make people feel like they’re not the problem,” he said of efforts like the caucus’ letter. “It’s government’s fault, it’s the corporations, it’s not your great state … it’s these awful people in the oil companies — you’d think they weren’t selling it to anybody.”

In fact, McCormack said, compared to tanker train cars and semi trucks, a pipeline is probably safer and more energy efficient.

“I hate to see (the Vermont Gas pipeline),” he said. “I really do, but what I’m saying is: When is that marketplace going to get so reduced that it doesn’t make sense to build infrastructure, because their industry’s on the way out?”

Legislative approaches are important and worth pursuing, Sullivan said after the meeting. But caucus members thought a letter would serve as a better response in this instance because it can be sent immediately, Sullivan said.

The pipeline is scheduled to begin carrying natural gas by April, said Vermont Gas Systems spokeswoman Beth Parent.

Parent said she wouldn’t speculate on the company’s response if the Public Service Board were to reopen the permit.

Davis said the letter “calls out” the notion that the Legislature supports the pipeline or that the Department of Public Service has simply carried out lawmakers’ instructions in backing the pipeline.

“You can’t say you’re doing what the Legislature tells you, if the Legislature overwhelmingly disagrees with you,” he said.

Parent said Vermont Gas is excited to be within weeks of completing the pipeline and that “thousands of families and businesses are depending on us” finishing the pipeline.

Sullivan sent the letter Friday. Department of Public Service Regional Policy Director Ed McNamara said the department will review it and respond soon.

Mike Polhamus

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