Addison County Lawmakers Urge Caution In Pipeline Approval Process

Aug 11, 2014

Addison County lawmakers have some big concerns about the Vermont Gas Systems proposed natural gas pipeline expansion project – so big that in a jointly-written letter, three of them urged the Public Service Board not to approve Phase II of the pipeline until the concerns are met. Phase II extends the pipeline from Middlebury to the International Paper mill in Ticonderoga, New York.

Sen. Chris Bray, Sen. Claire Ayer and Rep. Willem Jewett called on the Shumlin administration and the Public Service Board not to rubber stamp a project they say could lead to violations of Vermonters’ constitutional rights.

Bray points to the first article of the state constitution, which entitled Vermonters to the right to own private property – with some exceptions.

“It’s only fair to point out that the second article then says private property is subservient to public uses when necessity requires it,” Bray said. “So if you look at Phase II, an immediate question that comes up for me and for others is: Does a pipeline in which 99 percent of the gas is going to flow to a single, private, out-of-state customer constitute public use? And then further, in what ways is this use required by necessity?”

Bray’s questions sound like they’re straight out of the pipeline opponents' playbook, but he said he isn’t trying to make arguments for or against the pipeline.

“At heart, this letter is a letter of support for due diligence,” he said. “That’s really what we’re asking of the governor’s office, the Department of Public Service and the Public Service Board.”

The letter covers a range of issues, beyond the constitutionality of the pipeline. It delves into the project’s financing, alternatives to the pipeline build-out and questions about the project’s presentation to the board.

Bray says the piecemeal approach Vermont Gas has taken in applying for approval from state regulators makes it very hard to assess.

“Frankly, I was troubled that part of the Phase I analysis [by the Public Service Board] was predicated on Phase II when Phase II at the time had not yet been applied for,” Bray said. “So there was no way to have a rigorous analysis of the finances and public good associated with Phase II, and yet part of the way that Phase I was justified was in reference to Phase II.”

Steve Wark, a spokesman for Vermont Gas, said that while the end game of Rutland should be considered by the board, each phase of the pipeline brings enough benefit to Vermont to be approved on its own merits.

“Even if you look at Phase II alone, by itself, it still has significant benefits that more than pass any of the tests in the Public Service Board process,” Wark said. “Now, the additional benefit to it is very clear not only from a planning perspective, but from a common sense perspective. We’re going to be able to bring the same savings and benefits that people in Chittenden and Franklin county have enjoyed for decades to Rutland.”

As the project moves forward, Bray worries each phase’s dependence on prior phases will bias state regulators.

“I can’t think of any other project where we would agree to a contract, through a CPG [Certificate of Public Good] for instance, and then let the contractor continue to increase the costs and say ‘Well, we let you get started, so we’re going to let you keep going,’” Bray said. “I think there’s a natural momentum that will build in that direction.”

While the letter from Bray, Ayer and Jewett asks the Public Service Board not to approve Phase II unless their issues are resolved, Bray insists that isn’t a subtle way of voicing opposition to the pipeline – he says he genuinely wants to see the regulatory system work, regardless of what the outcome is.

“At heart, I want to make sure we make the wisest choices we can make for everyone’s good,” he said. “This is not about choosing sides, it’s about doing the best for everyone.”