VERGENNES/MIDDLEBURY — At meetings in Vergennes and Middlebury last week, Vermont Gas representatives updated the public on a plan to bring a natural gas pipeline to those locales by the fall of 2015.
Don Gilbert, Vermont Gas president, said the project would bring to Addison County an energy source that is cheaper and cleaner than oil or propane. The company already provides natural gas — which can power stoves and heating and cooling systems — to more than 40,000 customers in Chittenden and Franklin counties.
Gilbert said March 2012 natural gas prices in Vermont are 43 percent lower than oil and 55 percent lower than propane, coming in at $20.51 per thousand BTUs of energy, whereas comparable fuel oil and propane prices are at $36.05 and $45.61, respectively. He said he expects the natural gas supply to remain abundant, which will in turn keep prices low, for the foreseeable future.
Gilbert also said that natural gas emits significantly lower greenhouse gas emissions, when burned for energy or used in vehicles, than gasoline or other forms of fossil fuel.
But he acknowledged that the industry is not without its detractors, as a form of natural gas extraction called hydraulic fracturing, “hydrofracking,” has been met with a great deal of protest from environmental groups. The practice is suspected to contaminate waterways in areas near extraction projects.
Gilbert said while Vermont Gas does not know what percentage of its supply comes from practices like these at any given time, he supports the practice with stringent environmental precautions.
“The key is making sure that it is done properly,” said Gilbert. “The bottom line is that hydrofracking has been a good thing — it has added to the natural gas supply.”
While Vermont Gas, owned by Québec energy company Gaz Métro, currently gets its gas supply entirely from Canada, the proposed pipeline through Addison County would also allow the company to eventually connect with the U.S. natural gas system, as well as extend service to Rutland.
For now, said project manager Steve Wark, the company is in the planning stages of the project, seeking public input.
The Vergennes and Middlebury meeting last Wednesday and Thursday, respectively, each brought out about 20 local residents, many of whom expressed enthusiasm at the possibility of a natural gas source in Addison County, showed interest in the proposed route and raised questions about hydrofracking.
One Vergennes attendee wondered whether an abundant supply of natural gas to the population centers of the county would drive up the price of other forms of energy to those outside of the pipeline’s reach, who would not be able to access the Vermont Gas supply.
Gilbert said he would look into whether this has happened in other areas, but that he expected prices of other forms of energy would not change significantly.
Vermont Gas recently wrapped up a planning stage where it settled on a proposed route through the county. The company plans to run a 10-inch transmission pipe down one of the two major Vermont Electric Power Company (VELCO) rights-of-way in Addison County. That line would travel from South Burlington near Route 116, swinging over to Vergennes on one spur and down to Middlebury on another. This, said Wark, also opens up the possibility down the road of expanding to Bristol, though he did not specify a timeline for that addition.
Gilbert said one of the reasons such projects take time is that installing the pipeline is expensive — he estimated the cost at $1.5 million per mile. The project, which the company last year estimated would cost between $60 million and $70 million, will be paid for from an account that Vermont Gas funds from current customers in Chittenden and Franklin counties.
So far, Vermont Gas has been aided by an advisory group made up of Addison County business owners, town and state officials, representatives from state and federal agencies, economic development planners and environmental groups.
Adam Lougee, executive director of the Addison County Regional Planning Commission (ACRPC), participated in the advisory meetings. He said his organization and many of the other participants see the project as a great potential benefit to the county.
“The meetings I have been at seemed pretty positive, and generally in favor of the project,” said Lougee.
The project itself, said Lougee, has been well received by the ACRPC board and its employees.
“We’re very interested in the infrastructure and economic benefit that (the project) can bring to the region,” he said.
Energy-intensive businesses, like the Cabot cheese plant in Middlebury, have expressed interest in using the pipeline, and Lougee said homeowners along the line would also stand to save on energy bills, assuming that the price of natural gas does remain significantly lower than that of other fuels.
And Lougee said the project could make Addison County a more desirable place for business. For example, he said, many food processing operations look specifically for areas that have access to a natural gas supply, as the fuel offers an inexpensive way to power industrial stoves.
As far as the specifics of the project go, however, Lougee said the plan will need more scrutiny by his organization before ACRPC can put its support behind the project.
In the coming months, before Vermont Gas takes its plan to the Public Service Board and other agencies for approval, Wark said the company will be seeking public input and the input of area agencies on the plan.
The two meetings in Addison County this week — along with 7-9 p.m. meetings at the New Haven Town Hall this Wednesday and one in Colchester on March 28 — were the first piece of public comment. The company will be seeking ongoing public feedback and attending meetings, like the ACRPC meeting on April 11, at 7:30 p.m. at their Seminary Street office in Middlebury, before it seeks approval from the Public Service Board later this year, with the plan of beginning construction in 2014.
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at email@example.com.