Nearly 100 small businesses have signed a letter opposing Vermont Gas Systems' southern pipeline extension through Addison County, saying that natural gas - seen by some as a bridge away from fossil fuels - cannot compete with existing renewable energy options in the state.

The Vermont Public Interest Research Group, an environmental watchdog group opposing the pipeline, held a news conference in Middlebury on Tuesday. VPIRG is gathering signatures from businesses opposing the 41-mile pipeline extension to connect existing infrastructure in Colchester to Middlebury.

More than 90 businesses have signed on to the letter that will be sent to the Vermont Public Service Board. The businesses include AllEarth Renewables of Williston; American Flatbread of Burlington, Middlebury and Waitsfield; and Trukenbrod Mill and Bakery of Vershire.

VPIRG opposes the pipeline project because it would bring fracked gas from Alberta, Canada, deeper into Vermont. Hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, is a process to extract gas that is considered harmful to the environment.

Eileen Simollardes, Vermont Gas' vice president of supply and regulatory affairs, said that unless people use wood or electricity sourced from renewables to heat their homes, they use heating fuels, such as propane or oil - fuels that do not burn as clean as natural gas.

"Let's not let the pursuit of the perfect get in the way of pretty darn good," Simollardes said.

The company also plans to supply gas to the International Paper mill in Ticonderoga, N.Y., a second phase of the extension that is still pending before the board. This phase would cut down on the costs and time needed to eventually bring natural gas to Rutland (the third phase of the project), Vermont Gas officials say.

VPIRG is asking the PSB to dismiss the second phase of the pipeline expansion, stating the company first needs approval from federal regulators to cross state lines.