COLCHESTER >> Opponents of a gas pipeline being built to Addison County took over a hearing the Public Service Board tried to convene Thursday evening in Colchester, singing songs and holding banners for more than half an hour before board members gave up and left.
The hearing was to solicit public opinion on the disposition of a $21 million fund Vermont Gas Systems has collected since 2011 from its customers. Ratepayers contribute around $5 million to the fund annually.
The gas company has asked the PSB for permission to use two-thirds of that fund to temporarily limit the expected rate increases customers will pay to cover $134 million of the cost of the controversial pipeline.
If Vermont Gas withdraws $14 million from the fund, customers would see rates drop 3.3 percent for a year; if not, rates would increase 13.8 percent, primarily due to the long-term cost of the pipeline, according to the Department of Public Service.
Instead of taking testimony from the public, the board saw protesters unfurl banners and begin singing after Monkton resident Jane Palmer spoke out briefly against the project.
After 40 minutes of the disruption, board members left the Colchester High School auditorium, where the hearing was to have started at 7 p.m.
Protesters then staged a mock hearing and announced the pipeline wasn't conducive to Vermonters' best interests.
"There's an immorality to this," said Brian Forrester, of Williston. "It's not good for Vermonters, it's not good for the climate, it's not good for our country, and it's not good for our planet. This is the moment, and we've got to stop this."
The disruption probably accomplished little, but protesters believed it accomplished no less than the hearing itself would have, Palmer said.
"It doesn't matter what we say, the Public Service Board will acknowledge us and ignore us," she said. "The fact that we're here, that the Public Service Board would ask how it should be paid for, when the public said it doesn't want the pipeline, it's like, 'How do we pay for this stick to beat you with?'"
Indeed, Deputy Public Service Commissioner Jon Copans said after the event that the pipeline had already been approved and Thursday's hearing wouldn't change that.
Instead, the hearing was purely concerned with what's been termed the system expansion and reliability fund, and with a plan regulating Vermont Gas rates for the next three to six years, he said.
Department officials genuinely consider the Addison County pipeline expansion to represent a net public good, Copans said. The Public Service Department told regulators the pipeline would boost economic activity.
Vermonters may want to use the fund to temporarily limit rate increases resulting from the pipeline, or perhaps for some longer-term measures to mitigate its costs to ratepayers, he said. They might also simply want the money back, which appears to be an option, he said.
The department will use whatever direction it receives from the public to advocate for Vermonters' wishes as the board considers the Vermont Gas rate case, Copans said.
Testimony received by email, mail or phone will receive the same consideration it would have if presented at the hearing in Colchester, Copans said. People can reach the Department of Public Service's office of consumer affairs and public information at 800-622-4496, email@example.com, or 112 State St., Montpelier, 05620-2601.
Several of the roughly 40 Vermonters at the would-be hearing said Vermont Gas should give the money in the fund back to ratepayers.
The fund should never have existed in the first place, said Alex Prolman, of the anti-pipeline group Rising Tide Vermont. Vermont Gas amassed the fund by "skimming" off ratepayers for years, Prolman said, but with the understanding that the company would keep records that would allow it to return the money if the pipeline wasn't built.
The right thing to do would be to pay it back to ratepayers, Prolman said. Barring that, it would best serve Vermonters to spend it on energy-saving weatherization for low-income ratepayers' homes, he said.
Rising Tide, AARP and other groups have argued that the pipeline disproportionately harms low-income residents, to the benefit of large commercial interests.
"Climate justice means not taking money from poor people and paying for fossil fuel projects with it," Prolman said.
Vermont Gas spokeswoman Beth Parent said the company's customers today pay about 15 percent less for heat than they did five years ago. The fuel costs less, she said, than oil, propane and kerosene. Parent also said natural gas is "cleaner" than those three other fuels and that the company wants to give Vermonters that choice.
Mike Polhamus writes about energy and the environment for VTDigger. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mike_vtd.