The only thing Vermont Gas has to fear is Vermont Gas itself

Our friends at Vermont Gas have been their own worst enemies when it comes to the proposed natural-gas pipeline near the state’s western border. Worse than the environmental groups opposing the pipeline. Worse than the small number of landowners resisting the project. Worse even than the Yippie-style provocateurs at Rising Tide, with their sometimes amusing, sometimes alarming tactics. 

In spite of the opposition, the pipeline would be sailing through to full approval if it wasn’t for Vermont Gas repeatedly shooting itself in the foot. The company has been overly aggressive with landowners, overly sensitive with protesters, and really clumsy when it comes to state regulators who would be happy to approve the project if only Vermont Gas could get its shit together. 

Vermont Gas is clearly the front-runner for Worst Public Relations of the Year. For a brief moment it looked like Burlington College would give VG a run for its money, but after a weekend of utter confusion around the kinda-maybe resignation of its president, BC righted the ship. At least for now. VG’s efforts have been consistently inept throughout the process. Its tone-deafk spokesman, Steve Wark, should be fired or moved to a back-office job. And whoever’s managing VG’s public relations (Jason Gibbs, I hear) seems to be committing professoinal malpractice on an unforgivable scale. 

The latest development came late last week, when the Public Service Board announced it would look into reopening the case because of VG’s 40% higher cost estimate. That revision was, obviously, a huge black mark on VG’s reliability. And it rightly calls into question the project’s feasibility, since its biggest selling point is cheaper fuel. And now, even while the PSB is pondering whether to reopen the process, VG says it’s proceeding with the eminent domain process with recalcitrant property owners. 

Whoa there, big fella. Take a breath. 

Vermont Gas’ top priority right now should be regaining the trust of the public and regulators. Seizing land and digging trenches should be secondary right now. If VG can show it’s acting in good faith, its problems will be minimized. 

The PSB and the Shumlin Administration are favorably disposed toward the project. (As are the vast majority of residents in the affected area.) Last week, Governor Shumlin asked the Public Service Department to hire an independent property appraiser to take part in any eminent domain proceedings that might occur. At first glance, he seemed to be drawing a line in the sand. But when you look more closely, he was providing Vermont Gas with a roadmap to approval. 

Shumlin said he would “leave it to the lawyers to determine this issue,” but said the constitution protects private property owners from land use “without just compensation.” 

… He said property should be used “hopefully by agreement, but if necessary, eminent domain.” 

Which is another way of saying, “Hey, Vermont Gas, stop pooping the bed and you’ll get your pipeline.” 

I’m not particularly exercised over the proposed pipeline. The furor over the notion of our state being tainted by “fracked gas” seems overblown to me. We face much direr environmental issues. But Vermonters tend to get especially upset over new stuff coming from the outside — while there’s sadly little furor over the bad things we’ve been doing all along. 

Such as the persistent fouling of Lake Champlain. And our often inadequate wastewater infrastructure. And our highest-in-the-nation rate of adult asthma, mainly a result of woodstoves. 

But my feelings are beside the point. The point is, the only entity that can defeat the Vermont Gas pipeline is Vermont Gas.

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