Protective Agreement Limits Public Access to Vt. Pipeline Records

By Zach Despart

despartThe Vermont Public Service Board, a quasi-judicial agency that oversees Vermont utilities, recently approved a protective order that will limit public access to records related to a controversial pipeline project in the state. A Vermont utility company leading the project requested the order.

The order (.pdf) allows Vermont Gas Systems to, under specified criteria, request that certain documents and communications be exempted from public examination. Parties to the agreement imposed by this order, which include opponents of the pipeline project, would be prohibited from sharing the exempted materials with the public. The order stopped short, however, of requiring that parties deny public records requests related to the pipeline by citing a section of Vermont’s public records act that exempts documents relevant to ongoing litigation.

The Addison-Rutland Natural Gas Pipeline project has generated considerable controversy since Vermont Gas, a Canadian-owned company and the only natural gas utility in Vermont, first proposed the project in 2012. The pipeline, to be constructed in three phases, would run along the state’s western region in Chittenden, Addison and Rutland counties, and also extend across Lake Champlain to a paper plant in Ticonderoga, N.Y.

The business community has largely welcomed the pipeline, hailing the energy savings it will bring. The company has also noted that natural gas, while a fossil fuel, burns cleaner than oil. Opponents, however, argue that the natural gas pipeline will not help the state reach its goal of getting 90 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2050. They have also pointed to the apparent hypocrisy in the fact that the legislature in 2012 banned hydraulic fracturing in the state, yet state regulators have approved a pipeline that will carry fracked gas into Vermont.

Some landowners along the 41-mile, $86.6 million first phase of the pipeline have alleged that land agents have used bullying tactics to secure land use agreements. Based on staunch opposition from many landowners, Vermont Gas will likely have to, for the first time in its 50-year history, use eminent domain to secure land for the project. Voters in the city of Vergennes approved a non-binding referendum in favor of the pipeline, while residents in Monkton, Shoreham and Cornwall voted to denounce the project.

The Vermont Public Interest Research Group, which opposes the pipeline, argued that the protective agreement may prevent parties from disclosing criminal activity. Last year, Vermont Gas subcontractors working on a gas pipeline in Franklin County were arrested on suspicion of manufacturing methamphetamine. Vermont Gas halted work on the pipeline in St. Albans and Georgia to re-inspect the work the men performed. The agreement, it is argued, would make it more difficult to inform the public of such information.

The Vermont Press Association is investigating the effect this protective agreement will have, arguing that any attempt by a government agency to shield records from public review should be a cause for concern. The agreement is especially troubling, given that Vermont Gas representatives have declined to disclose information about land purchases it has made for the project. The cost of land acquisition for the pipeline will ultimately be borne by ratepayers.

Zach is a reporter for the Addison Independent in Middlebury, Vt.

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