Opponents Accuse Vermont Gas, Shumlin Administration Of Skirting Legal Process
The Vermont Public Service Board held a hearing Thursday morning about a new agreement between Vermont Gas Systems and the Shumlin administration.
Critics of the Vermont Gas pipeline say the agreement to limit the pipeline's cost to ratepayers is being thrown into the process at the last minute to influence the board.
The agreement limits Vermont Gas to recovering no more than $134 million of the $154 million project from ratepayers, forcing the company to shoulder the rest of the cost.
Jim Dumont, who represents AARP in the case, says the new agreement came after months of hearings, testimony and other legal proceedings. But "apparently, to the commissioner of public service and the president of Vermont Gas, those are minor technicalities," he says. "They want the board to rule in their favor based on unsworn allegations, without cross-examination without any opportunity to respond."
Vermont Gas president Don Rendall says the agreement is entirely appropriate, and filing the agreement with the board is part of the company's continued commitment to openness with the board and savings for its customers.
"It is so appropriate for Vermont Gas to continue to make progress on this project, to continue to work with our regulators to find ways to bring more value to our customers," he said.
The Public Service Board is in the process of deciding whether or not to reconsider its approval for the pipeline after its cost estimates went up nearly 80 percent last year.
The agreement between the Department of Public Service and Vermont Gas explicitly referenced the board process and urged regulators to let the project go ahead despite the cost increases.
Dumont isn't the only lawyer involved in the case who sees the agreement as unfair.
"Number one, it's unfair. And number two, what it tells us is Vermont Gas and the commissioner are afraid." - Jim Dumont, attorney representing AARP
At Thursday's hearing, David Grayck, who represents Monkton landowners Jane and Nate Palmer, said the agreement wasn't the only inappropriate move by Vermont Gas. He pointed out that the company's lawyer told the board at the hearing that there is legal precedent for such agreements.
"I'm looking at a one-page cover letter by Vermont Gas," Grayck said afterward, looking down at the company's filing. "I don't see any legal argument ... All I see is a letter signed by the [CEO] of Vermont Gas. Now there is legal argument as to why this document should be submitted. I think that's further evidence of the improper process that's going on here and how Vermont Gas is trying to use this to subvert the proper hearing process."
Dumont said the deal, which was announced Oct. 7, is a last ditch effort by the department and Vermont Gas to keep approval for the pipeline.
"Number one, it's unfair and number two, what it tells us is Vermont Gas and the commissioner are afraid," he said. "They are afraid that if we play this game by the rules, they're going to lose the game."
Public Service Commissioner Chris Recchia said when the deal was announced that part of the goal of the agreement was to pressure the board for a speedy ruling.
"One of the other reasons we wanted to do this was to let the board know that there needs to be a timeline otherwise the project is in jeopardy based on time alone," he said.
Despite the project's uncertainty, Vermont Gas has continued construction on the pipeline throughout the summer.
Members of the board are now working to decide how, or if, it should consider the agreement before they rule on whether to reconsider approval of the pipeline.