Beyond the financial gains for two big businesses, what’s at stake with Vermont Gas’s proposed Phase II pipeline project is the prospect of an extended environmental and legal battle that will likely be seen across the nation as a quirky rant by anti-business/pro-environmental forces in anti-business Vermont.
That’s not an image Gov. Peter Shumlin wants Vermont to project. Like governors before him since the early 1990s, there has been a concerted effort to rid itself of that image and certainly the state’s EB-5 program successes and other initiatives are helping. It would not be helpful for the nation to look at the Vermont story as the tipping point against “fracked gas.” The story has that potential.
Neither would the story be good for Vermont Gas and Gaz Metro. For environmentalists this is not a local story about private property rights, but rather a continuing story on climate change and, specifically, how the “clean fuel” image of natural gas is not as advertised. Opponents will harp on the drilling processes, the links, the perceived dangers to the Earth and residents, and on and on. It is not a fight Gaz-Metro should willingly embrace.
The potential bad press for both brands is reason enough to try to resolve the fight before it gets too far along.
The current battlegrounds are based on past policy with little new creativity: Vermont Gas is running its numbers (to pay for the extended pipeline to Rutland) based on what the Public Service Board has allowed it to do over the past 30 years; residents of Middlebury, Cornwall and Shoreham opposed to Phase II are preparing a legal battle based on historic PSB doctrines that a public good must be served for eminent domain to prevail in the right to build a pipeline through private lands. They say a “public good” for this spur to the IP plant is stretching the definition of that concept. And because the spur primarily serves one large out-of-state business and because it is conceivable Vermont Gas could reach Rutland sooner if it focused its efforts on Rutland first, opponents could argue the IP spur is contrary to Vermonters’ interest.
If the courts are to decide the issue — and that’s the direction Cornwall residents are hinting — look for a prolonged legal battle that delays the pipeline for years, brings that political battle to roost (tarnishing Vermont’s brand in the process), and costs everyone a lot of extra money that could have been put to better use.
What could be done? Dream a little.
The state’s goal is to get the pipeline to Rutland as quickly as possible to offer fuel prices that are almost half of their current heating bills. Not to get there as soon as possible puts businesses at a huge disadvantage in a city that has been struggling economically for years, but is poised to make a comeback with a solar initiave by GMP and a new emphasis on building new higher speed rail along a Western Corridor. But even getting gas to Rutland by 2020, which is what Vermont Gas projects if Phase II is approved, may be too long to help keep jobs from fleeing to towns just 30 to 60 miles north or out-of-state.
Could the state not think of ways to amend its current process of pipeline contruction — whereby ratepayers pay for it with cost-of-living incremental increases in their bills — and instead allow Gaz-Metro to front-load the payment from its deeper pockets and recapture that investment from ratepayers at a more gradual basis on the backend (a more typical way to pay for commercial infrastructure). We know that is not how the industry model currently works, but perhaps it’s time for new thinking.
What would Vermont Gas gain? By bypassing the IP spur and putting all its effort to reach Vermont’s second-largest city, it would undoubtedly get there sooner and tap into that eager market. It would also avoid a potentially nasty legal battle in Cornwall, which would likely push back the timeframe for Phase II and eventually on to Rutland — delaying by years any revenue from either of those sites.
What does the state gain? It gets the pipeline to Rutland faster — therefore saving and growing jobs, plus saving residents money on fuel costs — and avoids a no-win environmental battle that would spiral completely beyond its control. Not that environmentalists (and I use that term with respect) and other opponents wouldn’t also protest an extended pipeline to Rutland, but that there would be many more supporters of the pipeline to Rutland who would cheer its arrival and counter the image that Vermont is anti-business. (On the other hand, the certain protests against the Phase II pipeline would not likely be met by any supporters — and that hardly helps Vermont Gas’s case or the state’s image.)
The good news is that the Shumlin administration and Vermont Gas share a common goal: to reach Rutland as quickly as possible with the least cost to ratepayers, while also making it practical for the gas company. In getting there, finding the win-win scenario is the goal.
Angelo S. Lynn