The pipeline push
Rutland development officials are asking Vermont Gas Systems to take a risk in speeding up development of the natural gas pipeline it plans to extend from Middlebury to Rutland. And the company appears willing to take that risk.
The Middlebury-Rutland pipeline is Phase 3 of the project to bring natural gas down from Burlington to Addison and Rutland counties. Phase 1 has been approved and is under construction. That is the connection between Burlington and Middlebury. Phase 2 has not yet won approval from state regulators. That is the spur that would extend a pipeline from Middlebury, through Cornwall and Shoreham, and then under Lake Champlain to the International Paper plant in Ticonderoga, N.Y.
The paper plant would be a major customer for the Vermont Gas Systems, bringing in enough money that the company would be able to speed up its plans to build a pipeline to Rutland. Without IP, the company says it couldn’t extend its reach to Rutland for another 20 years. IP would allow the company to connect to Rutland by 2020.
That’s not soon enough for the Rutland Economic Development Corp. or the Rutland Region Chamber of Commerce, which sent a letter to Vermont Gas Systems urging it to move even more quickly. In response, the gas company has said it would begin working to secure a route to Rutland.
The risk for the company is that Phase 2 still has not won approval, and if Phase 2 is denied, money spent now on Phase 3 would be for naught. No major outlays can be expected until Vermont Gas Systems is sure about its IP connection, but plainly the company wants to keep enthusiasm for the project alive in Rutland. Beginning to search out a route for the pipeline is one way of doing that without putting too much money at risk.
Enthusiasm in the Rutland region is widespread. The appeal of natural gas at present is primarily the cost. That’s why large businesses — such as the paper plant in New York or Rutland Regional Medical Center — stand to gain significant economic benefits from a fuel that could cut fuel bills in half. Residents who heat with fuel oil could see a similar benefit, and in places of concentrated populations, such as Rutland or Brandon village, the impact could be widely shared.
Hostility toward the pipeline has not died. On Wednesday, a small group of protesters occupied a company staging area in Williston for about an hour, temporarily blocking truck traffic. The demonstration dispersed before police issued any citations.
Vermont Gas Systems, meanwhile, is losing patience with the protesters. Steve Wark, a company spokesman, issued a sternly worded statement, saying the company was not going to allow protesters to put company employees at risk. He was referring to an earlier incident at company headquarters where an employee allegedly was roughed up.
It is inevitable in the era of climate change that virtually any energy project using fossil fuels will attract protest. Opponents of the pipeline say, even though gas is not as bad as oil for the climate, it makes no sense to build new fossil fuel infrastructure when we ought to be looking for alternatives. Also, seizure of land through eminent domain along the pipeline corridor inevitably stirs up hard feelings.
The protests are not likely to counter the broad appeal to the public of natural gas, which is a cheaper, cleaner fuel alternative, but they keep alive awareness of our fossil fuel dilemma. In that sense, they serve a positive purpose.
Meanwhile, the Rutland community, which is always searching for new sources of well-paying jobs and the economic advantages that will attract them, is pleased that the company is willing to expedite the process of bringing gas to Rutland. Some homeowners along the pipeline corridor in Cornwall and Shoreham are not too happy about it, but bringing gas to IP in Ticonderoga would have a broad economic benefit. And extending that benefit to Rutland would be all the better.