With 2011 coming to a close, several major policy questions remain unanswered: Will Vermont Yankee close? Can Vermont launch a single-payer health care system? Will Gov. Peter Shumlin ever visit Dominica again?
Scratch that last question; the gov’s on the Caribbean isle of Anguilla as Fair Game goes to print.
One unresolved story could have a greater impact on Vermont’s economy and future — and on Shumlin’s legacy — than all of the previous questions combined: the proposed merger of Green Mountain Power and Central Vermont Public Service .
Think about it: Federal bureaucrats will determine whether Vermont gets the necessary legal waivers to create a single-payer system; federal judges will ultimately decide Vermont Yankee’s fate.
But Team Shumlin could control the outcome of the GMP-CVPS merger, provided it can convince the Vermont Public Service Board that the public benefits from the merger.
To recap: GMP, through its Québec-based parent company, Gaz Métro, wants to buy CVPS for more than $700 million. If approved, the new company will control two-thirds of the state’s consumer power market and own the largest single share in Vermont Electric Power Company (VELCO), the utility that governs the state’s transmission lines. All of that would position it to acquire any other utilities on the market. (I’m looking at you, Burlington Electric Department, under Mayor Kurt Wright .)
Vermont has one shot during this first regulatory process to prevent the entire state from becoming a wholly owned subsidiary of a Québec utility.
To date, Team Shumlin has been a cheerleader for the deal and a bon ami to Gaz Métro. Shumlin’s administration is clearing the way for Vermont Gas — also owned by Gaz Métro — to expand its pipeline network in Vermont, using money previously set aside for ratepayer refunds to finance the work.
If that weren’t enough, the administration also green-lighted GMP’s controversial plan to put almost two dozen 460-foot wind turbines on a Northeast Kingdom ridgeline .
It’s ironic that all this utility friendliness is happening on Shumlin’s watch.
One of Vermont’s greatest public power champions — Gov. George Aiken — hailed from Putney, Shumlin’s hometown. Shumlin, who considers Aiken his political hero, even has a framed oil painting of the late governor.
Aiken built his political career fighting private utilities; Shumlin’s more like their handmaiden.
“I always had a little difficulty with utility companies,” said the late governor, after he left office in 1941. “And I think it was warranted in those days, too. They were simply trying to take over everything.”
The pol most closely aligned with Aiken as it relates to the GMP-CVPS merger is Sen. Vince Illuzzi (R-Essex/Orleans).
Illuzzi wants the Shumlin administration to keep VELCO from falling under Gaz Métro’s control. He’d rather see the state’s homegrown utilities, or the state itself, have veto power over how the electrons flow in Vermont. He fears Vermont could become the cheapest, and quickest, path to southern New England’s energy market. In other words, we get stuck with supersized transmission lines, while our neighbors get cheap power.
Illuzzi recently voiced his concerns to Department of Public Service Commissioner Liz Miller and her staff. The DPS could indicate as early as this week under what conditions it would support the merger. DPS’ view holds a lot of sway over the PSB, the regulators who make the ultimate yea-or-nay decision.
“He and other parties have given us ideas that we are continuing to evaluate and consider for our filing,” Sarah Hofmann, DPS deputy commissioner, said of Illuzzi. ”I expect that we’ll find areas of agreement with Sen. Illuzzi as well as with other parties.”
Illuzzi and 45 other Vermonters have asked the PSB to appoint a special, independent counsel to vet the merger — largely due to the various conflicts of interest between GMP staff and Team Shumlin. Chief among them: Miller’s husband is a managing partner in the private law firm  that represents GMP.
“The commissioner has read all of my arguments and seems to understand my concerns, and I think is making an effort to take a position in the proceeding that will not give away the keys to the state’s electric transmission system to Gaz Métro,” Illuzzi told Fair Game.
Shumlin may hold the keys, but so far Gaz Métro is doing all the driving.
What does the mega-merger between Vermont’s two largest utilities have to do with Canadian tar sands?
More than you may think. Ready to play corporate connect-the-dots?
Let’s start from the top: Gaz Métro owns Green Mountain Power and Vermont Gas through a holding company called Northern New England Energy Corporation.
Gaz Métro is a wholly owned subsidiary of Noverco, a Québec-based holding company that, in turn, is controlled by two entities: the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec and Enbridge. The Caisse owns nearly 62 percent of Noverco; Enbridge controls the remaining 38 percent. But wait: The Caisse also owns a portion of Enbridge.
Who, or what, is the Caisse? It’s a Montréal-based investment firm that manages money for public and private pension funds and insurance plans, with some $151.7 billion in net assets under its control as of December 31, 2010.
Who is Enbridge? Enbridge is one of Canada’s largest pipeline developers and is based in Alberta. It’s heavily invested in tar-sand production and is currently in the process of developing a pipeline from Alberta to Vancouver as a way to ship tar-sand oil to Asia.
Enbridge also has ties to a pipeline that crosses Vermont. And that brings us to the Canadian tar sands…
In August, Enbridge announced it wanted to revive its “Trailblazer” pipeline, a dormant route that could move oil from its Alberta tar-sand fields east to Montréal. Enbridge scuttled an effort to restart the pipeline several years ago, but with the Alberta-to-Texas Keystone XL pipeline project stalled by Congressional infighting , the company smells oil, er, money.
Once in Montréal, some of that Albertan tar-sand oil could move south to Portland, Maine, through the Portland-Montréal Pipe Line. That pipeline crosses through Vermont in the Northeast Kingdom towns of Jay, Troy, Newport, Irasburg, Barton, Sutton, Burke, Victory and Guildhall.
The Vermont Natural Resources Council is one of two U.S.-based enviro groups to raise concerns about Trailblazer.
“The entire enterprise of digging up Alberta’s boreal forests and mining the oil sands is a massive source of new and dangerous global-warming pollution,” said Jake Brown, a VNRC spokesman. “And then, pumping tar-sand sludge through Vermont in existing, older pipes, exposing our own drinking-water aquifers — which are a public trust resource under state law — to possible oil spills if the pipes crack or corrode? That would be ill advised at best, and catastrophic at worst.”
Earlier this month, Canadian regulators said they would weigh in on the project — in the fall of 2012.
That gives Vermont some breathing room, but environmentalist Bill McKibben said the delays on Keystone and the Trailblazer pipelines are just that — delays.
“They’ll push anything they can to get the oil out,” McKibben told Fair Game. “There’s $12 trillion worth up there, so everyone will need to be vigilant.”
McKibben worries that tar-sand profits — and not developing new renewable sources of energy — may be what’s driving the decisions of Vermont’s future energy partners.
“If we get rid of the liars at Entergy,” noted McKibben, referring to Vermont Yankee’s corporate owners. “It would be a shame to replace them with other unreliable sources.”
No word yet from City Councilor Karen Paul (I-Ward 6) if she plans to challenge Democrat Miro Weinberger and Republican Kurt Wright in Burlington’s mayoral race.
Another independent is close to a decision. Wanda Hines, a longtime community activist and former director of the Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf, is mulling a bid for mayor.
Despite working for a Progressive administration, she’d run as an independent.
Hines led the food shelf for 12 years. She is currently the director of the city’s Social Equity Investment Project, which serves as a community resource as the city becomes more diverse.
“I am the person I am because of my community. They’ve installed the leadership in me that I have, and this will be a great opportunity to give back,” said Hines. “I think there needs to be more choice in this race than just Mr. Wright and Mr. Weinberger , and I’m feeling like, If not, why not? And, why not me?”
Hines tells Fair Game she’ll make a final decision after January 1.
Just in time for Christmas, Burlington Telecom got a lump of coal on Monday when its former financier, Citibank, filed for a preliminary injunction in federal court.
Citi wants a federal judge to force BT to de-install all of the municipal telecom’s equipment and infrastructure, return it at the city’s expense, and pay rent for the time it’s used the equipment without permission. Citi is out $33.5 million  on account of the telecom’s troubles.
What timing! This week, BT is expecting an official partnership offer from an unidentified, out-of-state telephone company.
The deal was revealed in a December 15 status report that BT filed with the Vermont Public Service Board. The report provided no specifics about the money, or company, involved. City councilors have been kept abreast of the deal in secret sessions, said city attorney Ken Schatz.
The public will get to weigh in, too. Imagine that!