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Vermont - New York natural gas pipeline stirs debate

Sarah Harris/Innovation Trail

At a public meeting in Hinesburg, Vt. last month, residents crowded into the town hall to ask questions about a natural gas pipeline that might be going through their community.  

Mark Ames wasn’t too happy. "I’m not interested in having a gas line either through in front of my house, 20 feet in front of my house, or behind my house, through my fields," he said.

Ames lives on Baldwin Road. The land behind his house is part of the Vermont Electric Power Company right-of-way. Both have been identified as potential routes for the pipeline.

But let’s back up a little bit.

Canadian natural gas

Last year, Vermont Gas decided to bring Canadian natural gas down through Addison County to the city of Rutland.

Vermont Gas is owned by Gaz Metro, a Quebec company. Its gas supply is fracked in Alberta, travels through the TransCanadian pipeline, and crosses the border in Highgate, Vt. The company currently serves customers in Franklin and Chittenden counties.

"We’re building this based upon strong assumptions that it’ll be very competitive with fuel oil in the future," said Steve Wark, Vermont Gas spokesman. "The other thing that it brings to the table is that it’s a much cleaner burning fuel. So for organizations, companies that are looking to reduce their carbon footprint, it’s a way to do that immediately by fuel switching."

And that’s what the International Paper mill, across Lake Champlain in Ticonderoga, N.Y., also recognized.

"We were looking at our energy costs and the cost particularly of fuel oil which is one of our primary fuels here," said Donna Wadsworth, spokesperson for the mill. "We started looking at the possibility of natural gas and coincidentally heard of this pipeline going in, contacted Vermont gas, and began discussions."

The two companies made an agreement. Vermont Gas would build the pipeline south to Middlebury.  

Pipeline will route west 

Then they’d route the pipeline west, under Lake Champlain and into New York state to the Ticonderoga mill.

And International Paper would pick up the tab:

"About a $70 million investment on the part of the Ticonderoga mill in this project," Wadsworth said. 

They’d also consume about 70 percent of the natural gas.

New York state officials praised the project, saying that it would dramatically reduce the mill’s greenhouse gas emissions, cut costs, and retain jobs.  

So, Vermont Gas started to figure out a route. The one they submitted to the state’s public service board for approval ran along residential roads in Hinesburg and Monkton – and right past Mark Ames’ house.

Residents started to worry about what the pipeline would mean for their trees and roads.

Sandy Levine is a lawyer with the Vermont Conservation Law Foundation. She says the environmental repercussions are bigger than the footprint of the pipeline itself.

"No matter how you look at it, it is a fuel that when burned  and when extracted releases greenhouse gas emissions,  which we need to be cutting back rather then expanding."

Pipeline will land closer to domestic supplies

Levine also points out that running the pipeline into New York state places it closer to potential domestic natural gas supplies. 

"How much does this pipeline enable access to gas that may be fracked in Pennsylvania or New York." 

Last year the state of Vermont banned fracking within its borders. But Steve Wark says that doesn’t mean that its citizens can’t tap into energy supplies from places where fracking is already under way.

"The fact is that natural gas is a commodity, it’s readily available, and hydraulic fracturing plays a role not only in natural gas but in gasoline, and fuel oil, and propane." 

After the two public meetings in Hinesburg and Monkton last month, Vermont Gas revised their route.

It now runs along the Vermont Electric Company right-of-way.

The company says they haven’t finalized the route from Middlebury, under the lake to Ticonderoga.

They plan to file supplemental materials with the Vermont Public Service Board by the end of February.   

The Public Service Board will hold a hearing about the pipeline on March 21 in Middlebury, Vt.

For more from the Innovation Trail, visit their website. Reporting by the Innovation Trail is funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Sarah is a correspondent for North Country Public Radio, based in Canton, N.Y.