MIDDLEBURY — To Joe Fusco of Casella Waste Systems, natural gas is both environmentally friendly and a cost-saver for business.
“We would like to see those economic and environmental impacts brought down to this part of the state, at least to Middlebury and certainly in the future further south,” said Fusco, one of more than 80 people signed up to speak at a Public Service Board hearing Tuesday night.
But Fusco was one of only a handful of individuals who spoke in favor of a proposal by Vermont Gas Systems to extend its pipeline 43 miles south from Chittenden to Addison County.
Opponents of the pipeline packed the gym at Middlebury Union Middle School to tell the PSB they want no part of a pipeline that will bring fracked natural gas to Addison County.
One after one, opponents came to the podium to denounce in often sharp terms the plans by Vermont Gas Systems to bring the pipeline to Middlebury with the prospect that it could be extended west under Lake Champlain to the International Paper mill in Ticonderoga, N.Y., and farther south to Rutland.
In his introductory remarks, PSB Chairman James Volz said the board is only considering the pipeline extension to Middlebury. Any extension of the pipeline beyond that would have to be considered under a separate application and hearing process, Volz said.
A common theme that came across from opponents Tuesday night was that the world is near the tipping point when it comes to climate change and global warming. And despite supporters’ claims that natural gas is a cleaner burning fuel and would lower energy costs for businesses, opponents were unrelenting in their criticism that emissions from fracked natural gas in particular only add to the climate-change problem.
More than one critic pointed out that a pipeline carrying natural gas derived from hydrofracking is in direct conflict with the Legislature banning fracking in the state.
Hydrofracking is the process that uses water and chemicals under extremely high pressure to disgorge otherwise hard-to-extract natural gas beneath the earth’s surface.
But those opposed to a pipeline that would bring gas down from Canada said the fracking process can destroy the land, pollute drinking water and do more harm to the atmosphere.
“We’re running out of time to stop climate change,” said Rebecca Foster of Charlotte, who like others urged the three-member PSB to deny Vermont Gas Systems a certificate of public good.
Foster said just because the technology exists to extract natural gas from rock “doesn’t mean we should.”
Sharon Tierra of Shoreham, a member of the Vermont Center for Public Good, said that if Vermont’s stated long-term energy goal is to rely on renewables for 90 percent of its energy needs, then extending the natural gas pipeline “only increases Vermont’s reliance on dangerous fossil fuels.”
Tierra and others who voiced their disapproval were often cheered on with applause from the crowd who filled the gym’s bleachers and floor. Many waved anti-pipeline signs that also doubled as fans on a humid evening.
Cornwall property owner Mary Martin said the path of the proposed pipeline and its impact makes her nervous. Martin alleged that Vermont Gas representatives “violated” her property rights by trespassing on her land.
Another opponent said if companies want to use natural gas they already have that option of trucking it in and that a pipeline isn’t necessary.
Natural gas has been promoted as a cheaper fuel — no small consideration for companies, especially the energy-intensive manufacturing sector.
But Julie Mitchell argued that the economic benefit of natural gas is overblown. She said Vermont, with the exception of Chittenden and Franklin counties, has no access to natural gas but still has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country. Mitchell said several other states, including New York and Pennsylvania with abundant access to natural gas from fracking, have much higher unemployment rates.
“Without quantitative evidence ... claims that a natural gas transmission line through Vermont will provide economic stability and growth are conjecture and must be considered as opinion and not evidence ...” Mitchell said.
Paul Burns, executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, said that given the environmental consequences there is no excuse for building a pipeline when “there are clean, local and affordable energy options available right now.”
Shortly after the hearing started, opponents drew a rebuke from PSB member John Burke, who noticed that several speakers who had signed up to speak as supporters of the project came to the podium to oppose it.
“We should actually be ashamed,” he told them.
The hearing wasn’t without its lighter moments. It’s not quite Halloween, but several speakers dressed in costumes to make their point. One man wearing a dinosaur head, who brought along his own sound effects of a ticking clock, simply held up a sign to the crowd warning of the coming “time bomb” of global warming.
The hearing was attended by a few supporters.
Nearly a dozen employees of Agri-Mark, which operates a cheese and whey plant in Middlebury, stood on one side of the gym for much of the hearing.
Prior to the hearing, Jeffrey Gooley, a maintenance manager at the plant, said switching from fuel oil to natural gas would help keep the plant competitive. He also said he likes natural gas “because it’s environmentally friendly.”
One Addison County resident who stepped to the podium said she supports the project because it makes economic and environmental sense.
“I believe if we’re going to compete for business in this area, throughout the state, and in Middlebury, we have to be competitive with other businesses,” she said.
The woman also said that, based on her research, the 500,000 miles of natural gas pipeline in the country is the safest means of transportation.
Others speaking in support were former Rutland City mayor Jeffrey Wennberg, now the city’s Department of Public Works commissioner and also a former commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation.
Following him was David O’Brien, former commissioner of the Department of Public Service, the state agency that serves as the consumer advocate in utility cases.
Prior to that, he also served as executive director of the Rutland Economic Development Corp.
O’Brien said increased availability of natural gas has meant less reliance on coal and even nuclear energy.
When he was attempting to recruit businesses to the Rutland area, he said, companies always had a checklist that included the availability of natural gas.
“I could never check that box,” he said.
Tuesday’s hearing was the second of two hearings on the pipeline. The board will hold a technical hearing Monday.
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