If Vermont Gas has learned anything from Phase I of its proposed natural gas pipeline from Colchester to Middlebury, it should have been that it’s worthwhile to do things right the first time through. In practical terms that means slowing down, making sure the public is thoroughly involved and on board as much as possible, and putting the landowners whose properties are being considered for the pipeline first and foremost in their priorities.
By the sounds of the concerns expressed at a public hearing on proposed routes of Phase II, through Middlebury, through Cornwall and Shoreham and on to Ticonderoga, N.Y., the company hasn’t taken those fairly obvious lessons to heart. That’s a shame. It does seem possible to avoid potential battles with Shoreham, Cornwall and Middlebury that they’ve already seen with Monkton and New Haven.
In business, time is money and everyone understands the significant savings in energy costs that the natural gas pipeline can bring to Middlebury and its residential and business communities, and to the International Paper plant in Ticonderoga — not to mention the profits to Vermont Gas Systems. But the priority for Vermont Gas and IP, we would think, would be on avoiding community or group lawsuits, or appeals of PSB decisions, or a battle over what is in the public good. Compared to spending a little more time choosing the most appropriate route through these towns and making everyone feel they had a voice, that’s time well spent if they can avoid legal battles on any of those three issues. Similarly, even though the pipeline will cost $1.5 to $2 million per mile, making an appropriate zig or zag along the way to avoid being too close to sensitive structures or personal property is money well spent.
Citizens also should be well aware of the benefits of the proposed gas pipeline. Before the public and Vermont Gas engage in more discussions over specifics on the ground — arguing over which route is most preferred — we would propose a quick overview of the economics. Specificially, residents of Middlebury, Cornwall and Shoreham should know:
• How many residential homes in each town might be hooked up to Vermont Gas and at what monthly savings over their current fuel source (we know rough numbers are around 40 percent over fuel oil, but let’s put it in dollars and cents for the average resident).
• How many businesses in Middlebury would benefit? What could it mean to job growth at plants like Cabot-AgriMark, Woodchuck Cider, Middlebury College, Hannaford, Shaws or the Middlebury Natural Foods Coop, Connor Homes or large car dealerships like Sheas, G. Stone Motors and Foster Motors? What other energy-intensive businesses might be served and at what cost? What limitations, if any, are there and should businesses be planning on different heating systems in the future to take advantage of the cheaper fuel and at what cost? Who will be able to sell and service those units? In short, let’s discuss and understand the larger business impact of what the pipeline could mean. Similar questions should be asked in Vergennes.
The three communities involved in Phase II also should understand to what extent Vermont Gas and International Paper benefit. They should be privy to:
• Annual projected savings in fuel at the IP plant.
• Projected decrease in pollutants released into the air by the IP plant if natural gas is used.
• Annual projected dollars and net profit to Vermont Gas due to the expansion into Middlebury and to serve IP.
The reason the latter is important is to understand how quickly both companies will be able to pay off the substantial debt that is required to install the pipeline. If it can be paid off in five years, that’s a consideration to note; if it takes 25 years, that’s something else again. It’s difficult for the communities or individual landowners to respond in negotiations if they don’t know the specifics.
Armed with such information, towns (and the state) might be more inclined to press for IP to instill even stricter air-pollution requirements; towns may or may not feel empowered to seek more appropriate compensation; and individuals would know better how to respond to private property easements.
Citizens should also be briefed on one other aspect of the proposed pipeline: the argument of public good. Perhaps a local legal firm could take it upon themselves to present the pros and cons of such an argument as a prelude to the next public meeting. Nothing definitive could be presented, but just an understanding of the boundaries of the argument would be beneficial.
These suggestions will add a few months to the timeline, but that’s probably essential, too — and, in the end, better for all concerned.
Angelo S. Lynn