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Opponents Celebrate Gas Pipeline Failure

martin-rendall-shovel-vpr-dobbs-20150211.jpg
Taylor Dobbs
/
VPR
Vermont Gas CEO Don Rendall accepted a broken shovel from Cornwall resident Mary Martin at Vermont Gas headquarters Wednesday.

Opponents of the Vermont Gas Systems pipeline project are unabashedly celebrating the company’s announcement Tuesday that it will not pursue a pipeline it planned to run under Lake Champlain to a paper mill in New York.

“We see yesterday as a huge victory,” said Avery Pittman, an activist with Rising Tide Vermont. Rising Tide has been one of the loudest voices in opposition to the pipeline and held a demonstration at Vermont Gas headquarters in South Burlington Wednesday.

On Tuesday, Vermont Gas canceled plans for the second stage of its three-phase planned project that was ultimately expected to bring natural gas to the Rutland area. Phase I of the project, which was designed to extend the natural gas network into Addison County, is already underway.

“Clearly this project is getting too expensive on a number of different fronts,” Pittman said. “And so we see that as a huge victory and we expect to continue our organizing and fight back against Phase I, and we expect that they will stop Phase I as well.”

The company has publicly doubled down on its commitment to completing Phase I of the pipeline, but even that pipeline – some of which is already built – has an uncertain future.

An appeal in the Vermont Supreme Court asks the high court to look at a constitutional argument against the pipeline. But the Vermont Public Service Board asked the court to pass the case back so the regulators had the opportunity to take another look.

On Monday, the court granted the board’s request, which allows the utility regulators at the board to decide whether or not to reconsider Phase I of the pipeline in light of a major cost increase announced in December.

"The benefits of Phase I are bleaker every day." - Sandra Levin, Conservation Law Foundation

Sandra Levine, a senior attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation, has been working in opposition to the pipeline throughout the regulatory process. She said after Tuesday’s announcement that Phase I may also fail because of rising costs.

“That’s certainly a very real possibility,” Levine said. “The economics of Phase I continue to be challenging. The costs of Phase I have nearly doubled in the last few months, and certainly Vermont Gas Systems was relying on payments from the Ticonderoga mill to help support the Phase I project. The benefits of Phase I are bleaker every day.”

The new cost estimates that brought an end to the second stage of the project are part of a larger effort by the company to “reset” its relationship with the public and earn more public trust around the pipeline issue.

That change was visible Wednesday when the Rising Tide demonstrators arrived at Vermont Gas headquarters in South Burlington. As about 20 protestors made their way onto the company property, CEO Don Rendall strode out the front door to greet them.

"We share a goal, a goal of a cleaner environment, and we have a different view about how to achieve that goal." - Vermont Gas CEO Don Rendall

“How are all you this morning – afternoon, I guess it’s afternoon huh?” Rendall said with a cheer demonstrators haven’t seen from company officials during past protests at the company building.

“I just wanted to say that we want to be very respectful of your holding a peaceful event here,” he said. “What we’re focused on is the safety of all of you, the safety of the public and the safety of our employees.”

The demonstrators quickly took the opportunity to denounce the Phase I expansion and called on Rendall to cancel that as well. They passed him a broken shovel as a symbol of the failed Phase II expansion.

“As you know,” Rendall countered, “we share a goal, a goal of a cleaner environment, and we have a different view about how to achieve that goal.”

The conversation continued until the demonstrators interrupted Rendall with a chant, turned their back on him and walked away.

"It would be so great," Rendall said over their chants, "to have a debate with all of you in which you were as respectful to listen to me as I have been to listen to you. And I look forward to doing that in the future with all of you listening to us as we listen to you, so that we can have a very respectful discussion about these important issues."

With that, he stuck the broken shovel into a snowbank snow and walked back inside.