When the Public Service Board this week approved construction of the new natural gas pipeline to Addison County, it made an effective and comprehensive case showing why the project would serve the public good. In doing so, it turned aside arguments by opponents who sought to minimize the environmental and economic gains to be secured by the project.
The project approved this week was phase I of an ambitious proposal to extend the Vermont Gas Systems pipeline system that has been serving Franklin and Chittenden counties for years. Phase I would reach down through Hinesburg and Monkton to Vergennes and Middlebury. Among the big customers in Middlebury would be the Cabot cheese plant, Middlebury College and Porter Hospital. About 3,000 residences also ought to gain natural-gas service, with additional branches foreseen for New Haven and Bristol.
Phase II would extend the line from Middlebury on an as yet undetermined route across Addison County and under Lake Champlain to the International Paper plant in Ticonderoga, N.Y. Income from the paper plant would help pay for phase III, which would run the line down from Addison County through Brandon and Pittsford to Rutland.
The PSB found that the project would achieve about $200 million in savings over 20 years. This is a significant economic benefit gained because the price of natural gas is about 40 percent lower than that of other fuels. Residents who switch from fuel oil to natural gas to heat their homes would win big. Businesses would spend less for fuel, allowing them to invest their savings in ways that could create jobs. The availability of low-cost fuels would improve the competitiveness of companies in the area, which would also benefit the economy.
The board’s ruling this week is on phase I only; it will rule on the Ticonderoga and Rutland projects later. The Rutland pipeline extension already enjoys wide support, and the latest ruling shows that the board is ready to reject some of the arguments that might have been used to stand in the way.
Opponents argued that approving the pipeline would allow for the wider use of a fossil fuel at a time when we need to get away from fossil fuels in favor of more renewable fuel sources. Natural gas is cleaner and more efficient than fuel oil, but it still creates greenhouse gases.
The board said renewable fuel sources — wind and solar, for example — are used mainly for the generation of electricity, and the natural gas would not be supplanting those energy sources. Rather, it would be replacing a dirtier fossil fuel. Further, the expanded natural gas system could make use of bio-methane generated on farms, encouraging the development of a form of renewable fuel.
In addition, expanded use of natural gas will be accompanied by an aggressive energy efficiency program carried out by Vermont Gas Systems, helping homeowners weatherize their homes so that they would be able to make use of a cheaper, cleaner fuel and do so more efficiently.
The PSB dismissed the arguments of those who said the state should not expand its use of gas because it is the product of the technology known as fracking, which has damaging environmental effects. The board said it had no authority to reject the pipeline because of the source of the gas. The Legislature has banned fracking in Vermont, but it has said nothing about the use of gas obtained through fracking.
In fact, other fossil fuels, such as fuel oil, have damaging environmental effects that may be as severe, or more so, than fracking. The BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico damaged the gulf in ways scientists are still exploring. Are we to stop the use of fuel oil or gasoline in Vermont because of the damage caused by oil drilling?
The state needs to curb greenhouse gas emissions and to use energy more efficiently. The PSB was correct in finding that the new pipeline would help achieve those ends. Bringing those gains to Rutland ought to magnify the benefits.
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