MIDDLEBURY — The Addison County Regional Planning Commission (ACRPC) board on Wednesday voted 15-11 that the proposed natural gas pipeline from Middlebury to Ticonderoga, N.Y., can pass muster with the county’s regional plan. That decision will be passed along to the Vermont Public Service Board to consider as it determines whether to green-light the controversial project being advanced by Vermont Gas.
Wednesday’s vote came after two hours of impassioned comments, many of them delivered by Cornwall and Shoreham residents who on Town Meeting Day passed resolutions against the so-called “Phase II” Addison-Rutland Natural Gas Project pipeline that would feed the International Paper mill in Ticonderoga. The vote also came after negative recommendations from the ACRPC’s own Energy and Act 250/Act 248 Committees.
But in the end, the proposed pipeline got enough support from board members who said the pipeline should be supported for its potential to bring economic benefit to the greater region that includes Rutland County to the south and Essex County, N.Y., on the other side of Lake Champlain. Supporters also cited the heating fuel savings the pipeline could bring to the small pockets of Addison County residents that would have the opportunity to patch in.
New York delegations weigh in
A delegation of Essex County, N.Y., officials turned out at Wednesday’s meeting to encourage the ACRPC board to delay its vote on the Phase II pipeline pending a presentation from civic and business leaders from such towns as Moriah, Ticonderoga, Crown Point and Essex. Some of those officials urged the ACRPC board to give a favorable recommendation on Phase II in the same spirit of collaboration that existed between the two states as when the Lake Champlain Bridge was out of commission from 2009 to 2011.
Ticonderoga Supervisor Bill Grinnell introduced the New York delegation and argued that denying the proposed pipeline could place International Paper in a precarious financial predicament. The company now relies heavily on No. 6 fuel oil to power its boilers. Natural gas is currently more than 50 percent less costly than fuel oil and propane. Grinnell said access to natural gas would strengthen IP and its more than 600 jobs, including landowners, truckers and loggers in Vermont.
“I don’t think anyone in this room can deny the economic impact that International Paper has on our entire region,” Grinnell said. “I don’t think anyone from an environmental point of view can vote to deny this project when you look at the benefits it will have… It is so much better than any alternative offered, I see no logic in not letting it happen. It’s to the benefit of everyone — not just economically, but environmentally.”
Moriah Supervisor Thomas Scozzafava warned of the repercussions to his area if IP shuts down.
“Although (the pipeline) does affect Vermont, it also has a huge impact on our communities,” Scozzafava said. “If International Paper closes that mill… we’re going to lose 600 jobs. Southern Essex County would become a ghost town.”
Addison County residents express concerns
But several Addison County residents at Wednesday’s meeting reiterated their concerns about the project based on environmental and property-rights concerns. And since the Phase II project would involve a large transmission line (and not a distribution line), many Addison County residents along the route will not be able to tap into the natural gas on its way to IP.
Orwell resident Norton Latourelle suggested IP should instead solve its energy problems by moving to renewables like hydroelectricity and/or trucking in natural gas. He also urged New York state officials to recognize the hardships that the Phase II pipeline might place on Vermont communities.
“I agree totally with Bill (Grinnell) that we should all try to help Ticonderoga and the mill,” Latourelle said. “I would ask Bill and all of the other supervisors on the other side of the lake to extend the same helping hand to Shoreham and Cornwall, who have voted overwhelmingly that they don’t believe an industrial corridor running through Cornwall and the northern side of Shoreham is a good idea.”
Shoreham resident Dale Birdsall called the pipeline proposal shortsighted.
“A few people will benefit by saving some money on their heating bills, and it will be nice for those people,” Birdsall said. “But the problem is not going to be now.”
He said problems will occur around 25 years down the road when the pipeline begins to age.
“I think we are jeopardizing Lake Champlain if we approve this, and I just don’t think it’s worth it,” he said.
Birdsall said the primary beneficiaries of the pipeline would be Vermont Gas, a subsidiary of Gaz-Métro, a Canadian-owned company, and IP, a New York-based company that he noted a decade ago proposed burning tires as an alternative fuel source against the wishes of Vermont residents.
“There was no cooperation (between New York and Vermont),” Birdsall said in harkening back to the tire-burning plan.
Middlebury resident Margaret Klohck voiced concerns about the potential damage a ruptured natural gas pipeline could do to Lake Champlain. Plans call for the Phase II pipeline to be drilled under the lake.
“How can anybody justify putting that (pipeline) under Lake Champlain?” Klohck said. “The least leak that you’re going to get is going to devastate the lake, in both states. I don’t see how Vermont takes all the risks to help New York; I would rather have New York take on its own issue and put it on the New York side.”
Middlebury resident Jason Kaye also spoke against the Phase II pipeline. He quoted from the Public Service Board’s approval of the Phase I pipeline (from Colchester to Middlebury), which states that the two projects can proceed independently of one another. Vermont Gas has said that it is counting on Phase II to save its ratepayers $45 million in costs for eventually extending natural gas service to Rutland by 2020.
Board members speak out
ACRPC board members listened intently to the audience before voicing their own views about a project that they have been studying for more than a year. As the 15-11 vote indicates, the commissioners were evenly divided in their views about the Phase II pipeline plan.
The commission’s Energy Committee, by a 4-1 margin, had voted to send the message to the full board that the Phase II pipeline proposal does not comply with the energy section of the Addison County Regional Plan. That energy plan states, among other things, that “energy infrastructure and services do not cause undue adverse impact to the health and safety of residents or on the environmental quality of the Addison region.”
The energy plan also cites as a goal to have “no large-scale energy generation or transmission facilities, which have as their primary purpose providing energy to markets outside the Addison region, to be constructed or expanded in the region.”
“Enough of us felt we could simply not recommend approving the application because it would take a herculean effort of logical contortions to say the application is consistent with that section,” ACRPC board member and Energy Committee member Jeremy Grip of Ripton said.
Middlebury ACRPC board member Ross Conrad, also part of the Energy Committee, said he was concerned it might send a bad message to the public and regulators if the commission made a recommendation on the Phase II project that was in conflict with provisions of the Addison County Regional Plan.
“I would hate to see a situation where our testimony is seen as unreliable… ,” Conrad said. “If I’m not standing behind the plan, tell me what on Earth am I supposed to stand for?”
The Act 250/248 Committee also voted against Phase II (by a 6-4 margin), while the Natural Resources Committee unanimously agreed that the project would comply with the natural resources section of the Addison County Regional Plan.
But a majority of commissioners said they believed they could reconcile the pipeline project with the regional plan.
“I think some of what we have to think about tonight is whether you consider our New York neighbors or our Rutland neighbors as being outside of our region,” said Ellen Kurrelmeyer, the ACRPC delegate from Whiting. “We all have little berms at the county lines where economics don’t flow past our line, where people don’t flow or energy doesn’t flow. I consider the other side of the lake and all around us part of the Addison region. I think if you take the tiny, narrow view that we should build the Great Wall of China around Addison County, you’re probably not going to like this project. But I just don’t see how we don’t interact and fit in with everyone else, and I think we have to look at it that way.”
Garland “Chico” Martin, a delegate from Bristol, agreed.
“I think there is an undercurrent when economic development is cast as detrimental or inconsequential,” said Martin, who also asked those criticizing fossil fuels why they were driving cars.
“To keep the state in some kind of ethereal impracticality, as if preserving a view unobstructed by any sign of economic development… is not sensible.”
Vergennes City Manager and ACRPC Delegate Mel Hawley said it would be contradictory for the commission to have endorsed the Phase I pipeline project from Colchester to Middlebury, but not Phase II.
“I think it’s like contradicting ourselves to say it’s OK to bring natural gas to Middlebury, Vergennes and Bristol, but it’s not OK for that same natural gas to continue through a similar-sized pipe into another area,” Hawley said. “It just seems like this became a very self-serving policy: We can bring natural gas to us, but we can’t let it flow through to benefit others.”
In somewhat of an unusual move, the commission asked its executive director, Adam Lougee, to weigh in.
“I think we need to read this project globally,” Lougee said.
He argued that while the regional plan opposes large-scale energy projects that would cause an undue, adverse impact on the region, he said people should not assume that the Phase II project would do that.
“I think that largely (the pipeline impacts) can be mitigated, and I do see benefits to this project,” Lougee said. “I do believe we have an obligation to look at our neighboring regions, both New York and Rutland… This is an economic development project. There’s a lot at stake here.”
Vermont Gas spokesman reacts to vote
Vermont Gas spokesman Steve Wark said on Thursday he was pleased with the ACRPC’s vote.
“The vote in support of Phase II of the Addison-Rutland Natural Gas Project is an endorsement that recognizes the economic and environmental value that natural gas service can bring to Vermont and the Ticonderoga paper mill,” Wark said. “We will continue to work with the regional planning commission as we now enter into the formal regulatory process with the PSB.”
Asked to comment on the narrow 15-11 tally, Wark replied, “A ‘yes’ is a ‘yes,’ and we believe that the more people learned about Phase II, support emerged. Keep in mind there were other delegates that were absent — had they been present the margin would certainly have changed.”
The ACRPC roster revealed delegates from Addison, Ferrisburgh, Lincoln and Orwell were absent from Wednesday’s meeting.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]