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.

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  • Edward Letourneau

    I wonder if those 60 legislators would also sign on to not having heat in winter?

    • Nate Palmer

      Not a valid response. No one will go without heat if this pipeline doesn’t get finished.

      • Edward Letourneau

        This entire global warming argument is pretty dumb anyway. We have had periods of extreme warming and planet earth survived and the life with it. — I call your attention to last ice age and the fact that Vermont was covered by mile thick ice sheets, and guess what — global warming melted them, and it wasn’t from cars and power plants. And man is still here.

        • Matthew Davis

          The warming you refer to was due to Milankovitch Cycles. The unprecedented warming we are experiencing now is due to a perturbation to the climate system through anthropogenic increase of greenhouse gases. And, there have been a number of extinction events in Earth’s history related to climate change so your premise that earth survived, as did life, is not totally correct. We are seeing high rates of biodiversity loss currently…just a coincidence?

          • Edward Letourneau

            There is no proof of Milankovitch Cycles. Its pretty close to junk science and you know better. No focus on the last ice age. What extensions took place that science has directly linked to the ice melting?

    • Veronica Ciambra

      We may not have to worry about heat in winter in VT if we keep heating up the planet with our wasteful use of fossil fuels. I think Senator McCormack’s stance is very valid. At the same time we protest the pipeline and I do think the pipeline should be closed down, we have got to look at our own wasteful, consumer lifestyles and take steps to halt our own environmental impact. How much unnecessary driving do you do? Walk, take a bus, share a car ride- think about it. Use up your food in the frig before buying more, eat more non-animal foods, eat locally grown/produced foods,plant a garden, make compost, think about the difference between need and want and more towards meeting your needs not your wants. We all can do better by the environment than we are currently doing. Contradictions abound, but we can’t just stop thinking about how to do better. We don’t need to be perfect, but we all need to do better in our own personal abuse of the environment.

  • Nate Palmer

    Representative Curt McCormack said, “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?”
    Thing is, this pipeline was never “needed”. It isn’t now. It never made financial sense to build it even at the original cost. Vermont’s population is too sparse and scattered to benefit from a pipeline. I ask the legislature or the DPS to actually do some kind of study and verify exactly how many new customers are signing up to receive fracked gas. The cost to convert and the small difference in cost doesn’t make it worth while. Don’t just take Beth Parent’s word for it when she says “thousands of families and businesses are depending on us finishing the pipeline.” because VGS has been exaggerating the demand since the beginning. Those customers that really need to reduce their fuel bills should be helped to insulate and weatherize and convert to heat pumps or other high efficiency heat sources that won’t require this kind of expensive infrastructure that locks us into using it at least until its paid for. And the industrial customers are already receiving compressed “natural” gas via truck delivery so the pipeline is not needed for them either.

  • Lawrence Shelton

    The 2013 CPG (Certificate of Public Good) only considered industry supplied data on the efficiency at the tip of the flame as a metric to measure natural gas as a clean energy source.
    In fact, we now have the technology to ‘see’ the massive plumes of methane being released from the frack lands of North America. ‘Fracking’ is largely a 21st Century innovation in technology that has accomplished in years what climate scientists had once predicted would happen in decades, or centuries.
    Methane is roughly one hundred times more potent a greenhouse gas than CO2.
    Methane is more deadly to our planet, to life on Earth, than coal. (That is not to say we should just stick with coal. I agree with Mr. McCormick when he says that consumption is the problem.)
    Completion of this pipeline would provide new infrastructure to support the expansion of fracked gas extraction, and with that, the acceleration of climate change. That is to say, the acceleration of the killing of life as we know it on this yet still lovely little blue and green planet.

    • David Usher

      “Methane is roughly one hundred times more potent a greenhouse gas than CO2.” Nonsense.

  • Steve Baker

    For a state that is starved for business and revenue generated from business, they seem set on standing in the way.

    • Veronica Ciambra

      I doubt if businesses will be moving to VT because of the pipeline.

      • Steve Baker

        Perhaps you didn’t notice but the pipeline itself is generating business. Those building yet buy groceries, pay rent or mortgages, taxes of all sorts. I would advise you also that energy costs are one of the biggest contributing factors to a businesses success.

  • Ritva Burton

    ENOUGH ALREADY! The pipeline is almost finished, let them complete the project! 3 years of hashing this over is enough!

    • Mary Martin

      I’d prefer to let them stop it.

  • Guy Page

    Curt McCormack has put his finger on the problem: we don’t want to be the bad guys, we don’t want to suffer in order to reduce emissions. And my point is, we shouldn’t have to and we don’t have to. As someone who wants cleaner air and water, I think the Climate Caucus, with the best of intentions, is leading us down a fruitless path to counterproductivity and frustration. The more we Vermonters sees how what the Caucus is “selling” will affect our lives, the more we will resist. I believe we can enjoy our high standard of living while making great reductions in total emissions for all three energy sectors: heating, electricity, and transportation. I said as much to Senate Energy when I testified there a few weeks ago and outlined just a few ideas on how to get there. Rather than slap our knuckles with the ruler of carbon taxation, divestment, forced deprivation of energy sources, the Legislature should give us added low-emissions incentives to act in own self-interest.

    • John Zuppa

      No one wants to discuss…(sometimes my mention of this is not printed)…WE are the problem…To paraphrase an economic saying…

      “It’s the POPULATION, stupid..!!”

      If our numbers keep increasing like this…(PS…this is not happening in VT)…we will never be able to create enough energy cleanly…to keep up with demand…

      In 1952, 65 yrs. ago, the POPULATION of the USA was less than HALF of what it is today… Think about it…in terms of jobs, energy, etc…. Any ideas..??

  • Ray Mainer

    People are going to heat their houses, commercial and industrial spaces. Industry is going to use energy for processing. Why is coal, fracked or tar sands oil and propane better than gas? Middlebury College burns about 800,000 gallons of number 6 fuel oil (aka tar) each winter. Why is that better than natural gas? Why is it better to have hundreds of diesel trucks running around carrying dangerous loads better than a pipeline?

    You think we are all going to live in the cold and dark if the pipeline isn’t finished?

  • Renée Carpenter