A new Vermont Supreme Court case brought by the Conservation Law Foundation is challenging the legality of the regulatory permit that allowed Vermont Gas to build a 41-mile pipeline into Addison County.
Regulators at the Public Service Board approved the pipeline in 2013 when the project was nothing more than a proposal. By June of 2014, Vermont Gas announced that instead of building the pipeline for $87 million as approved, the cost would be far higher: $122 million.
The next month, in July 2014, CLF Senior Attorney Sandra Levine formally asked the Public Service Board to reconsider its approval of the pipeline. Levine says Vermont Gas Systems should have to get a new or amended permit – known as a Certificate of Public Good – because the pipeline is no longer the same $87-million project that was approved in 2013.
“The [Public Service] Board has its own rules that clearly state that if there is a change to the project that has the potential to effect the evaluation under one or more of the criteria, a new or amended Certificate of Public Good is required,” Levine says. “Unfortunately the board ignored that clear statement in the rule and did not require Vermont Gas to seek a new permit.”
The board’s intentions became clear in January 2016 when regulators announced that the company could keep its Certificate of Public Good, but there was no official ruling on CLF’s request for more than two years. During that time, Vermont Gas built virtually its entire pipeline.
The board denied the request on March 30, 2017. Now, Levine says, CLF is hoping to force the issue by getting the Supreme Court to require the board to reconsider its approval of the project.
“Fundamentally, if Vermont regulators knew in 2013 what they know now about the costs and the impact of this project, it’s unlikely this project would have ever been approved,” Levine says.
That’s not a sure thing, however. Even if the Supreme Court sides with CLF and requires the Public Service Board to reopen the case, the board wouldn’t be legally obligated to change its decision.
Vermont Gas officials have said throughout the construction process that the pipeline is still worth building, and will bring economic and environmental benefits to the state, despite the cost overruns. They say offering natural gas to Addison County will give homeowners and businesses a heating option that’s not as environmentally harmful as heating oil, and price competition will help consumers overall.
Vermont Gas announced in early April that the pipeline is complete and serving customers. Levine says CLF is pursuing the Supreme Court appeal because it would hold Vermont Gas accountable, even if it can’t change the fact that the pipeline is already built.
“What would happen if the Vermont Supreme Court agrees with Conservation Law Foundation is it would go back to the [Public Service] Board,” Levine says, “and Vermont Gas Systems would be required to apply for a new or amended Certificate of Public Good and provide environmental and cost justification for the proposed project.”
The Vermont Supreme Court is in the process of deciding another case related to the pipeline. A group of residents appealed a Public Service Board ruling that granted Vermont Gas the right to build pipeline under a public park in Hinesburg.