The Vermont Public Service Board held the second of two hearings Tuesday night to hear public comments on a controversial 41 mile natural gas pipeline proposed for Addison County.
The project would be an expansion of the Vermont Natural Gas System’s Chittenden County pipeline.
Most speakers at the hearing opposed the project.
Before the hearing opponents staged a rally outside the Middlebury Middle School.
Once inside the crowded school gymnasium those who signed up to speak were asked to note whether they were supporters or opponents of the pipeline and as the hearing got underway the board announced it would use the list to hear alternately from each side in the debate.
But the system fell apart as person after person criticized the pipeline proposal.
Board member John Burke admonished those he said had disingenuously signed up as supporters when they were really opponents.
“You’ve got to realize, how are we going feel about taking seriously the comments you give us if you’re not going to play by the rules?” Burke told the crowd.
The board, was in turn admonished by Will Bennington of Monkton who said members had arbitrarily imposed new rules for the hearing. Bennington was also offended by what he felt was a condescending attitude toward opponents.
“And you’re rolling your eyes at me right now,” he said as he spoke to the board. ‘ You are not allowed to respond to me during this process. I know the rules better than you.”
But the pipeline, not the process, was what concerned most speakers.
Opponents repeatedly raised the environmental concerns surrounding the use of hydrofracking to extract natural gas. They argued that while gas may be cleaner burning than oil, the process of extracting it is a threat to water quality and contributes to climate change.
“ We’ve been digging ourselves a hole in terms of greenhouse gas emissions for a long time now. Unfortunately Vermont Gas Systems is handing us another shovel,” said Ross Conrad of Middlebury.
While natural gas proponents often characterize it as a bridge to a cleaner energy future, opponents cite the environmental concerns and say its more like a gangplank. Several speakers Tuesday night capitalized on that image to appear before the board as characters from the Disney film Peter Pan, which featured the pirate Captain Hook.
Others found irony in the fact that Vermont is the first state to ban hydrofracking.
“I’m here to oppose the pipeline for all of the reasons that you’ll hear tonight, including the fact that building a new natural gas pipeline across a state which has recently banned fracking strikes me as ethically problematic,” said Kathryn Blume of Charlotte.
Far fewer pipeline supporters spoke at the hearing and all made a case for the economic benefits they felt the pipeline would bring to Addison County.
Bill Flood of UTC Aerospace Systems in Vergennes said the pipeline would provide both cost and environmental benefits.
“Natural gas eliminates a safety concern that we have as well as environmental risk associated with heating oil. We have to heat with heating oil that’s trucked in,” said Flood.
A number of speakers were representatives of the business community who emphasized lower cost of natural gas and called it a cleaner alternative to oil. In the words of one, "Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good."
That sentiment was echoed by Former Vermont Public Service Commissioner David O’Brien, a Rutland resident who told the board, “Natural gas is becoming the resource that is making it possible to shut down numerous coal units, nuclear units and to provide supplies for renewables, so from an economic perspective and from an environmental perspective and energy supply perspective please give this serious consideration.”
Opponents said the pipeline’s benefits to the local economy were unproven and some argued that the pipeline actually poses a threat to Vermont’s tourist economy.
Next week the Public Service Board begins taking testimony on the pipeline application.
The board is expected to make a decision on Vermont Gas System’s application for a Certificate of Public Good by the end of the year.