BRUCE EDWARDS / Staff Photo Eileen Simollardes of Vermont Gas Systems makes a presentation Wednesday to the Pittsford Select Board. The company wants to extend its natural gas pipeline to Rutland by 2020.
PITTSFORD — Vermont Gas Systems made its pitch for extending its natural-gas pipeline to Rutland County, telling the Select Board here Wednesday that natural gas offers significant savings for residents and businesses and is better for the environment than either heating oil or propane.
The company has embarked on a three-phase plan to extend its pipeline south from Chittenden County to Vergennes and Middlebury, west under Lake Champlain to the International Paper mill in Ticonderoga, N.Y., and then farther south along the Route 7 corridor to Pittsford and Rutland.
If the Public Service Board gives the go-ahead for all three phases, Pittsford and Rutland would be on track to receive natural gas by 2020 — 15 years earlier than expected, said Eileen Simollardes, vice president, supply and regulatory affairs, for Vermont Gas Systems. She spoke before the board and about a dozen or so people who packed the small conference room at the town offices.
“It could be a game changer for the area,” Simollardes said.
She said based on current energy prices, homeowners would see a 50 percent reduction in their fuel bills using natural gas for an average savings of $2,000 a year.
The first phase of the Addison-Rutland Natural Gas Project — from Chittenden County to Middlebury — is awaiting Public Service Board approval. Simollardes said the company expects a decision by the end of the year.
The company recently filed an application with the PSB for the second phase of the pipeline extension. If that receives approval, the company would embark on a third phase to serve Rutland.
Simollardes brought along a map showing the transmission and distribution routes to Middlebury and across Lake Champlain to the IP plant.
She said the key to bringing the pipeline to Rutland is the IP plant, which will wind up paying $45 million for natural gas that will defray the cost of extending the pipeline south.
Because the process has just barely begun, she said no route had been selected to extend the pipeline to Rutland. Simollardes did say the route would likely involve a combination of utility right of way, highway network and open fields.
She said until transmission and distribution routes were chosen, it was too early to say how many people in town would be served by the pipeline.
“We’re in the business of selling natural gas,” Simollardes said. “Our objective is to put the pipe every place that we can, reasonably.”
One of the expected users of the pipeline is the Omya Inc. calcium carbonate plant in the Florence section of town. Another potential commercial user in the county is GE Aviation.
In response to questions from the Select Board, Simollardes said a transmission line ranges in size from 10 to 12 inches, buried 3 to 4 feet, along a 50-foot right of way on open land with less right of way required along a highway corridor.
She said as the planning process moves forward, the company is encouraging input from the public.
Simollardes said the town would also benefit because the pipeline is subject to property taxes. She said each mile of pipeline has an assessed value of $2 million.
Select Board member Jane Cornell, who said she was a satisfied former natural gas user, asked whether the company had encountered much opposition.
Simollardes said that while there has been opposition, the project has enjoyed widespread support.
“In many ways this project is really about choice, bringing a choice of a new fuel type to Vermonters,” she said. “People who are opposed to using natural gas don’t have to use the product.”
But Cornwall resident Bethany Barry Menkart made a lengthy argument against the pipeline.
“I can tell you that there is a great deal of opposition to this project,” Menkart said.
She said at the top of the list was the source of the fuel — gas imported from Canada using the hydrofracturing method of extraction.
“Fracking” pumps water and chemicals under high pressure to extract the gas from deep underground. It has been blamed for polluting groundwater and having other undesired environmental consequences.
Menkart questioned the wisdom of building a pipeline under Lake Champlain and the environmental damage a leak would cause.
Menkart also argued that if the state wants to reach its stated goal of 90 percent renewable energy by 2050, building a fossil fuel pipeline that contributes to global warming with other environmental and safety consequences “is a step in the wrong direction.”
“Is this something we really want to bring into Vermont and into our rural communities?” she asked.
She also questioned what she called the abominable environmental record of the Canadian parent company of Vermont Gas Systems.
But Simollardes defended the company’s record spanning several decades in Vermont.
“I feel very confident about our safety record,” she said.
If anyone doubts that record, she said, they should talk to lawmakers in Chittenden and Franklin counties.
As to cost, Menkart said that while Vermont Gas touts the low cost of natural gas, the company fails to mention the cost to convert an oil or propane heating system to natural gas.
Simollardes said the cost of converting a propane system is $200 to $300 with a payback of only a couple of months, based on savings compared with the use of propane. For a fuel oil system, she said Vermont Gas Systems rents conversion burners for $20 a month.
To replace a heating system, Simollardes said, the cost is between $1,200 and $3,000, depending on the size of the heating system. In that case, she said, the payback would be 18 months.
At one point, Select Board Chairman Allen Hitchcock had apparently run out of patience. He told Menkart she had two minutes to finish.
Board member Hank Pelkey followed up, adding: “The board appreciates all comments.”
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