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February 08, 2012

Fracking Aside, Vermont Eyes Natural Gas Expansion

Lm-frackingAs reported in today’s issue of Seven Days, a possible moratorium on hydraulic fracturing is wending its way through the Statehouse. In a preemptive strike, lawmakers are considering putting the brakes on the controversial method of drilling for natural gas more commonly known as fracking.

But despite the state’s apparent squeamishness over fracking, Vermont is moving ahead with plans to expand its natural gas network.

Right now, Vermont gets about 6 percent of its energy from natural gas. There's only one gas utility in the state: Vermont Gas Systems, a subsidiary of Montreal-based Gaz Métro, which since 1965 has piped natural gas from the Canadian border to customers in Chittenden and Franklin counties.

Now Vermont Gas Systems is looking to expand. The utility won approval last fall from the Vermont Public Service Board to funnel $4.4 million annually into an expansion fund, with an eye toward extending its reach into Addison and Rutland counties as early as 2015.

Natural gas “doesn’t do sprawl well,” says Steve Wark, Vermont Gas director of communications. That means the utility is looking for places with a population density to support new pipelines. And that population — especially when it comes to local business — is hungry for natural gas. Cheaper fuel means bigger profits.

“Right now our focus is on helping businesses and residential consumers save money by using natural gas,” Wark says.

Natural gas is also singled out in the Shumlin administration's comprehensive energy plan, released in December. The report says natural gas could serve as an engine for economic development; as a possible means of powering transportation fleets; and, potentially, as the fuel for small or medium-sized electricity generating plants.

While acknowledging that new extraction techniques — meaning fracking — raise “significant environmental and emissions concerns,” the plan calls for Vermont to increase use of natural gas and bio-fuel blends when it isn’t possible to use renewable energy.

The reason? It’s cheap. Right now, gas is 40 percent cheaper than fuel oil — and it’s cleaner burning than other types of fossil fuels.

“Before hydrofracking came forward, people were really pushing natural gas as an environmental boon,” says Ken Smith, the director of the Cornell Cooperative Extension in Chenango County, New York. Smith is on the front lines of the debate over fracking along the Marcellus Shale in New York.

“There are great benefits in Vermont to switching to natural gas,” Smith says. “That doesn’t take away the other negatives … but I think it’s important for people to consider that as part of the equation.”

Smith points out that Vermont is downwind from coal-fired power plants in the Midwest — and their toxic emissions that carry powerful toxins like mercury, which is responsible for acid rain. Smith argues that the state stands to benefit if its neighbors make the switch to natural gas.

Not everyone agrees. Paul Burns, the executive director of Vermont Public Interest Research Group, says that natural gas prices are arguably too low.

“They are low enough to be making it difficult for truly green technologies on the renewable sides of things to get a foothold,” Burns says.

This much is certain: The state’s potential moratorium on fracking will likely have no bearing on the natural gas market. Vermonters’ natural gas comes from Alberta and travels east along the TransCanada Pipeline. The province is rich in natural gas reserves, producing 75 percent of the gas extracted in Canada each year.

Joe Choquette, a lobbyist for the American Petroleum Institute In Vermont, estimates that between 30 and 45 percent of the gas delivered to Vermont’s border comes from hydraulic fracturing in Canada. Wark won’t guess at a percentage; he says it’s too hard to know how the gas is extracted.

For activists like Burns, that's all the more reason to move away from all fossil fuels — cheap natural gas included.

“I think environmentalists are having to take another look at gas and whether or not it should be considered a so-called bridge to a cleaner future,” Burns says. “We need to be going even more rapidly toward renewable energy.”

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