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Natural gas providers square off in public meeting

"Comment on gasThose who wish to comment early and often on proposed gas pipeline and distribution system construction on Whidbey Island can do so through several avenues. The WUTC, PSE, Cascade Natural Gas, and Westcoast Energy are all taking comments. Here are the names to contact and where to write:* Jeffrey Showman, Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission, 1300 S. Evergreen Park Dr. SW, P.O. Box 47250, Olympia, WA 98504-7250; 360-664-1212; email jeffrey@wutc.wa.gov* Karl Kirn, Puget Sound Energy, 1700 College Way, Mount Vernon, WA 98273; 360-424-2930.King Oberg, Cascade Natural Gas Corp., 222 Fairview Ave. N., 206-381-6828, Seattle, WA 98109.* Westcoast Energy, Inc., Bob Foulkes; 604-488-8093Even before the first length of pipe has been laid in a trench at the Canadian border, big energy and South Whidbey residents began wrangling Monday night over whether a proposed natural gas pipeline crossing the Southend is a good idea.Called as a work session by the Island County Board of Commissioners, the meeting filled the main room of the Bayview Senior Center with gas industry representatives and more than 40 South Whidbey citizens. The event was a success, said Island County Commissioner Mike Shelton, because it answered many of the questions South Whidbey citizens have had since Cascade Natural Gas announced its intention to bring gas to the Southend.It was meant more to be an informative time for the public, Shelton said. People are concerned, and rightfully so.Representatives from the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission (WUTC), Westcoast Energy, Cascade Natural Gas, and Puget Sound Energy (PSE) all spoke about how Westcoast's recently-proposed Orca Pipeline project could bring natural gas heat into South Whidbey homes. They also fielded dozens of pointed questions concerning pipeline safety and the project's potential for environmental damage.While Cascade and PSE may eventually vie before the WUTC to gain the South Whidbey gas market, there will be no competition to build the Orcas Pipeline. Westcoast Energy, a Canadian company, plans to run the pipeline down the I-5 corridor, across Saratoga Passage to landfall at Sandy Point, across the Island to Maxwelton Beach, where it would go back into the water on its way to the Kitsap Peninsula. Pat Siaka, an engineer with Westcoast, said his company wants input from South Whidbey residents in order to come up with what he called the peoples' pipeline.Westcoast would not be involved in developing a distribution system to local communities and homes. If the pipeline is built, distribution would fall to Cascade or PSE.Gary Iverson, a Cascade Natural Gas representative, said his company is the fastest-growing local gas provider in the country. He said his company wants to add South Whidbey, north Everett, and several communities on the Kitsap Peninsula to its 188,000-customer service base. Both Iverson and Dan Meredith, another Cascade representative, assured those gathered for the meeting that any distribution system their company built would be better maintained and monitored than the one owned by Olympic Pipeline Company in Bellingham. That pipeline, which carried liquid automobile fuel rather than natural gas, exploded last year, killing three Bellingham residents.When she started her presentation, PSE vice president of operations Susan McClain said her company wants to be South Whidbey's provider for both gas and electricity.We are both competing for the right to serve this community, McClain said. We are interested in serving our current electrical customers with natural gas.Like the Cascade representatives, McClain said local home and business owners are likely to find gas an attractive energy source due to its low cost. Based on data compiled by PSE, she estimated that a family with an 1,800-square-foot, pre-1985 home would have a $595 annual gas bill, as compared to the $1,000 or more the same family with the same house would spend for electric heat and hot water.However, few of the the people listening to the presentation seemed to care about saving money on their heating bills. Steve Erickson, an activist for the Whidbey Environmental Action Network, asked Westcoast's Siaka how many leaks his company had experienced recently, and how its gas exploration and transportation activities will affect lands in Canada's Arctic and wetlands and streams in Western Washington.Also concerned about safety, Clinton's Karen Anderson asked Cascade's Iverson why his company's distribution system is any safer than Olympic's Bellingham pipeline.The industry representatives struggled with the questions. Siaka told Erickson that Westcoast Energy will not be working in the high Arctic for another 10 years. And when it does, he said, it will disturb the natural environment as little as possible. As for Western Washington's wetlands and streams, Siaka said his company will restore anything they disturb with native vegetation.On the subject of safety, Iverson noted that Cascade will not only have the most up-to-date monitoring equipment on its distribution system, but will monitor that equipment 24 hours a day. It was in the area of monitoring that Olympic failed to detect pipeline leaks in Bellingham, he said.According to Jeffrey Showman, a policy specialist with the WUTC, it will be at least a year before his agency is in a position to choose a company to provide natural gas distribution on South Whidbey. Westcoast's pipeline project will be regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). That project will also need at least a year to submit a complete pipeline development application to FERC.Mike Shelton said he and his fellow commissioners -- all of whom were at the work session -- have yet to determine if Island County has any regulatory authority over the proposed pipeline and gas distribution system."

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