UPDATED at bottom with additional comment from a Sanders spokesperson.
In his escalating feud with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), gasoline magnate Skip Vallee is preparing to go nuclear.
The owner of nearly 40 Vermont Mobil stations has produced a 30-second political attack ad accusing Sanders of siding with "big business" to damage the state's environment. And he's threatening to plunk down a chunk of cash to put his ad on-air.
"You ask, why does [the ad] seem like a political campaign?" Vallee says. "Because I think Bernie's undertaking a political campaign to take a very public position on the Costco process. And this is meant to counteract his advocacy for the project."
In the ad — which Vallee provided to Seven Days, but which has not yet aired on television — a narrator ruminates over Vermont's "treasured history of protecting our natural environment." In the background, a waterfall kicks up spray and a kayaker paddles Lake Champlain.
"Leaders like Sen. Patrick Leahy have fought to provide resources to make Vermont a cleaner place. That's why we are so disappointed with Sen. Bernie Sanders," the narrator says as the soundtrack turns darker. "Bernie sided with a multinational, billion-dollar corporation over Vermonters — supporting development that will increase traffic and idling emissions and phosphorous runoff in Lake Champlain, leading to more algae blooms."
The ad concludes by asking viewers to "take action and tell Bernie he's wrong to side with big business."
Rather, Vallee says, he produced the ad as part of a "public relations strategy relevant to the Costco project." And while he hasn't yet bought television time, he says "there's a good chance" the ad will make its way to a television screen near you.
"We have a message. It's a good medium to communicate it through," he says.
Sanders' office declined to comment on the ad.
Vallee provided it to Seven Days shortly after Sanders raised the gas-price issue once more at a Monday morning press conference in his Burlington office (pictured below). Speaking to a crowded room of reporters, Sanders accused three gasoline distributors in northwestern Vermont of "keeping prices artificially high for you simply because they can do that."
While Sanders stopped short of accusing them of breaking the law, he said the distributors — Vallee among them — "have created a noncompetitive environment" and are unfairly bilking cash-strapped Vermonters. He said he has urged environmental regulators to "expedite the process" of deciding whether to allow Costco to move forward with its plans to erect gas pumps in Colchester.
While Sanders said he believes the Coscto project would reduce gas prices throughout the region, Vallee says it would simply disturb wetlands, contribute more phosphorous pollution to Lake Champlain and exacerbate traffic congestion in the area.
"He's asking them to expedite the review of the project. There are significant issues that we believe require caution," Vallee says.
Asked whether it's a tad ironic for a major gasoline dealer to be concerned about the environmental impact of a competiting business — not to mention the environmental record of a liberal U.S. Senator — Vallee says it isn't.
"I sell gas in compliance with environmental regulations that apply whenever we're selling gas," he says. "Our argument is, this Costco project doesn't comply with those."
Will Sanders and and Vallee ever get together and try to hug it out?
Not likely. Both claim the other refuses to meet.
"I have written to the three companies that own over half the gas stations here in northwestern Vermont," Sanders said Monday morning. "They have chosen not to meet with me — not to answer the very simple question of why they are charging people in other parts of the state some 25 cents a gallon less."
Vallee countered by providing an email he sent to a Sanders staffer late last month laying out terms of what he hoped would be a 2.5-hour meeting in Vallee's office touching on subjects ranging from Burlington Telecom to the Keystone Pipeline. Sanders' spokesman said Monday that Vallee's proposal "made clear that he has no interest in discussing the matter seriously."
Where was it taken? A Middlebury Maplefields owned by none other than Skip Vallee. Wonder where WCAX got that footage!
Sanders' office initially declined to comment on Vallee's ad Monday afternoon, but spokesman Michael Briggs had this to say Tuesday:
"As one of the leading environmentalists in Congress with a 100 percent record last year with the League of Conservation Voters, Bernie finds it amusing to be attacked by a gentleman who was a major Republican fundraiser for George W. Bush, one of the most anti-environment presidents in history.
"Mr. Vallee may want to deflect attention from the real issue that Bernie is concerned about, but the question is a simple one: Why is he charging people in northwestern Vermont 20 cents to 30 cents a gallon more than he charges in Middlebury?"