Tag Archives: Vermont Gas

When It Comes to the Environment, Who Better Than a Gas Man?

Is it just coincidence that Gov. Phil Scott appointed a former natural gas mogul to a state environmental board at a time when global warming is wreaking havoc on large swaths of the planet? Or is he indulging in uncharacteristic irony?

Scott announced Monday that Don Rendall, former CEO of Vermont Gas, will become interim chair of the Vermont Natural Resources Board. I have to admit I had no idea what the NRB was, so I visited its website. And there I found quite a bit of food for thought.

The Board, for those as clueless as I, oversees and enforces Act 250, Vermont’s land-use law that seeks to minimize the environmental impact of development. As the only full-time state employee on the board, the chair tends to dominate the process. As the Board’s website makes clear, “The [Act 250] Enforcement Program is directed by the Chair of the NRB.”

Rendall retired last fall after five years as Vermont Gas CEO. During his tenure, the company launched its Addison County pipeline project which was the subject of protests and lawsuits and, as VTDigger put it, still faces “multiple ongoing Public Utility Commission investigations.” Previously, Rendall had been an executive at Green Mountain Power. No hint of environmental expertise in his C.V.

Vermont Gas has touted natural gas as a low-cost, environmentally-friendly fossil fuel. The climate activist group 350Vermont, which created the above illustration, would call that “greenwashing.”

So why is the man who pushed the pipeline the right choice for this job?

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Who speaks for renewables?

The anti- wind and -solar crowd had a big to-do at the Statehouse yesterday, wearing construction-type green vests and lugging all kinds of props as they pressed their case for the current iteration of anti-renewables legislation: a ban on ridgeline wind and “local control” over siting decisions.

This post is not about their arguments. This post is about the absence of response from those who supposedly favor renewable energy.

With the exception of VPIRG, our environmental groups have been curiously silent. On paper, they support renewables as part of a broad-based effort to combat climate change. But in practice, they stay off the battleground.

Disclaimer: I don’t have pipelines into their war rooms, and I don’t know the details of their lobbying efforts. I’m judging based on what I can see. And what I see is an extremely active anti-renewable movement and a distressingly quiescent response.

I’m talking VNRC, the Conservation Law Foundation, and the Sierra Club among others. They all pay lip service to renewables, but what do they actually do? Where is the pro-renewables gathering at the Statehouse?

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Feeling a little jet-lagged, Governor?

Okay, look. Personally, I don’t have a big problem with the Vermont Gas pipeline. It would mean Vermont is consuming more natural gas — but we already consume quite a bit, so it’s not like we’d be losing our fracking virginity. (Much of our natural gas consumption is in the form of electricity generated in out-of-state gas-fired plants and purchased on the spot market.)

You ask me, I’d say don’t build it. But Vermont faces far greater environmental challenges, and I’m not sure why the Vermont Gas pipeline became the poster child for activists. If they wanted to have a positive impact on climate change, they’d be better off advocating for renewable energy and lower dependence on out-of-state sources including natural gas, nuclear, and ecologically destructive “industrial” hydropower from Quebec.

That said, Governor Shumlin pulled a substantial boner upon being repeatedly interrupted by anti-pipeline activists at the Paris climate summit.

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Art Woolf To The Rescue!!!

Throughout the history of its big pipeline project, Vermont Gas has been its own worst enemy — alienating landowners, indulging in ham-fisted PR, and repeatedly raising its cost estimates for pipeline construction.

Nonetheless, the odds are still in VG’s favor. Well-meaning protests notwithstanding, if VG can make a plausible economic case, the thing’s gonna get built.

And who’s helping them build a plausible economic case, according to VTDigger?

The construction of the project will create as many as 444 direct and indirect jobs, according to a report by the Vermont consulting firm, Northern Economic Consulting, Inc.

That’s the consulting firm co-owned by our least-favorite economist Art Woolf, he of the reliably awful “How We’re Doing” column in the Burlington Free Press.

Yes, Art’s a professor at UVM, but I suspect he makes a lot more money from NEC than he does for his academic work. His consulting firm has a number of revenue streams:

— Consulting to a variety of high-paying clients, mostly of the corporate persuasion.

— Providing expert witness services for civil suits of all kinds. (“Have you been hurt in a slip and fall accident? Dial 1-800-CALL-ART for expert testimony on your financial losses.”)

— Running an annual Vermont Economic Outlook Conference. The most recent conference was a five-hour affair, with admission priced at a cool $170/person.

— Publishing a monthly Vermont Economy Newsletter, subscription a mere $150/year.

In short, Woolf is more hired gun than objective expert. Which might explain why his weekly columns, more often than not, come across like they were written on behalf of the Associated Industries of Vermont. George W. Bush once told a roomful of wealthy supporters that they were his base; well, the Vermont business sector is Woolf’s base.

So, about his rosy estimate of the pipeline’s economic impact. Without doubt, the vast majority of those 444 “direct and indirect jobs” are temporary, construction-related jobs.

TransCanada has claimed that the Keystone Xl pipeline would create tens of thousands of jobs. But almost all of those are temporary, appearing and disappearing during the projected two-year construction cycle. Operating the pipeline, once it’s built, would take about 50 workers.

As far as I can tell, nobody’s asked Woolf about the quality or duration of those 444 pipeline jobs. But if his math is similar to Keystone’s, then we should expect no more than a handful of permanent positions at Vermont Gas.

Don’t blame Woolf; he’s only doing what bespoke experts do for their money: putting forth the best possible case for his client.

One more thing. The identifier that accompanies Woolf’s column in the Freeploid mentions only that he’s a faculty member at UVM. Nothing about his corporate clients, nothing about the subscriber base for his costly publication. Considering how many business interests are paying Woolf, how often do you suppose there’s been a direct or indirect conflict of interest that’s gone conveniently undisclosed?

Oh, one more one more thing. There’s a typo in the title of last Thursday’s “How We’re Doing.” In the TITLE, for God’s sake. It’s spelled “minuscule,” not “miniscule.” Any copy editors left at the Freeps?


Senate Natural Resources: Addition by subtraction, at the very least

On Friday afternoon, the white smoke went up the chimney of the State Senate’s College of Cardinals — the three-man (yup, still no women in the club) Committee on Committees* who dole out the committee assignments.

*John Campbell, Phil Scott, Dick Mazza. 

The most closely-watched decision was over the chairmanship of the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee. Former chair (ahhhhhh) Bob Hartwell chose not to run for re-election last year; his chosen successor is Addison Democrat Chris Bray.

Hartwell famously cast doubt on the science of climate change last spring in an interview with Seven Days’ Paul Heintz:

“To suggest that mankind is causing the whole climate to shift, that’s a big reach,” he added. “I don’t think anybody’s ever proved that.”

When Heintz pointed out that, in fact, it had been proven by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Hartwell cast doubt on the IPCC’s credibility, accusing it of making “some pretty extreme statements” and claiming the scientific community is divided on the question, which is complete balderdash.

Compare that hot mess to Bray’s position, as reported by VTDigger’s John Herrick:

“Climate change is the largest challenge we face, not just as legislators but as a species,” he said. “There are some pretty discouraging predictions out there about what will happen, but we can’t afford the be paralyzed by that uncertainty.”

That’s better.

The other notable addition by subtraction on Natural Resources is the departure of human popgun Peter “The Formerly Slummin’ Solon” Galbraith, whose main contributions were strident opposition to wind power, a short temper, and frequent grandstanding. Good riddance. He’s effectively been replaced by Brian Campion, Democrat from Bennington, who scored 100% on the Vermont Conservation Voters’ 2013-14 environmental scorecard. 

The other three Natural Resources members were reappointed: Diane Snelling, Mark MacDonald, and John Rodgers. Snelling’s one of the better Republicans on environmental issues, MacDonald is reliable if uninspiring, and Rodgers is one of the worst Dems on the environment; he and fellow Kingdom Democrat Bobby Starr earned a pathetic 38% from the VCV, the lowest scores of any Senate Dem. But without Hartwell and Galbraith, he’ll be a lone voice on the committee.

Bray scored 100% on the VCV scorecard for the last biennium (Hartwell got a dismal 50%); his elevation to the chairmanship is getting positive markers from the environmental community. Paul Burns of VPIRG:

Chris is a very thoughtful, methodical legislator. He considers issues carefully and is receptive to hearing from all sides of an issue. But that’s not to say he doesn’t have his own ideas or vision. He cares a great deal about the environment and he not only believes in climate change, he wants to do something about it.

Those on-the-record views were largely echoed by a Statehouse vet who requested anonymity.

Chris has a strong streak of environmentalism. He is committed to the issues [his committee] will be involved in. He is deliberate, and likes to hear from all sides.

He won’t be a renegade; he’ll be a team player. He won’t cause problems [for Senate leadership]. He’s generally good on the issues; the environmental community should be happy with his appointment.

The enviros’ big worry was that Rodgers might snag the chair, which, given the CoC’s stacking of the 2013-14 committee with some of the worst possible Senators, wasn’t an unreasonable fear. So they’re relieved to get Bray instead. In an ideal world, their favorite would have been Prog/Dem David Zuckerman, but that would’ve been too much to expect from this particular CoC.

Chris Bray’s dedication to environmental issues, and his even temperament, will be tested in the new session. His committee will have to tackle the issues highlighted in Gov. Shumlin’s inaugural — a new renewable energy program for Vermont utilities, and the Lake Champlain cleanup.

His own district is touched by multiple hot-button environmental issues: Champlain, the Vermont Gas pipeline, and the siting approval process for solar arrays. The latter, because the Champlain Valley’s relatively flat landscape makes it desirable for solar. He’ll be torn on the pipeline and solar, since some very vocal advocates are on one side of those issues, and the local business community is on the other. And if he supports Gov. Shumlin’s package of Champlain initiatives, he’s likely to feel some blowback from farmers and developers his district.

He may also be torn between his own environmental beliefs and whatever’s rattling around in John Campbell’s brain these days. We shall wait and see.

The gang that couldn’t dig straight

That was quite a heapin’ helpin’ o’ bad news served up by Vermont Gas this morning. It announced yet another big cost increase for Phase 1 of its pipeline project, and asked state regulators to put the case on hold.

Which is, if nothing else, a sign that they realize how bad their situation is. How bad?

Yeeeesh. Company officials insist the pipeline is still economically viable, but it’s a lot less viable than originally thought. That changes the cost/benefit equation — which should include the environmental questions — quite a bit. In other late-breaking realizations…

Mm-hmm, I’ll bet. As I wrote in early September, Vermont Gas has been its own worst enemy, coming across as bullies with landowners, and as questionable managers with state regulators.

Whether its bumblefuckery is enough to shelve the project remains to be seen. Today’s announcement is the beginning of a new phase in the history of this proposal. Up till now, the economic arguments in favor of the pipeline had been strong enough to overcome resistance from the environmental community and a small number of landowners.

Those arguments are a lot less strong today. Vermont Gas has given the state a big fat excuse to kill the project — at a time when Governor Shumlin (to be entirely political about it) desperately needs a high-profile issue on which he can pander to the left. Well, if he wants one, he’s got one.

Update. The Governor has released a statement, and yes, he sees an open door in front of him.

Although I am pleased that the new leadership at Vermont Gas is taking the time to reevaluate the proposed projects, this further cost increase is very troubling. In the coming weeks my administration will be evaluating all of this new information and looking at these projects as a whole to ensure that they remain in the best interest of Vermont. Meanwhile, I expect Vermont Gas to also reevaluate its communications and negotiations with affected landowners to help improve relations. I trust those steps will continue.

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.