• Energy tensions
    June 29,2014

    Two business groups from the Rutland area are urging Vermont Gas Systems to speed up their planning for an extension of a new natural gas pipeline south from Middlebury to Rutland.

    Construction of the Rutland connection, called Phase 3, depends on approval of the pipeline veering off from Middlebury, across Cornwall and Shoreham, and under Lake Champlain to the International Paper plant in Ticonderoga, N.Y. That approval is not yet in hand.

    But the interest by the Rutland business community in the availability of natural gas is an indicator of the economic appeal of natural gas for Vermont companies and shows why the gas company is willing to stand up to the criticism it is receiving from a number of directions.

    The criticism has been strongest from communities along the route of the pipeline. Residents of Monkton, in northern Addison County, have lodged strong complaints about how the pipeline company has dealt with them as it has begun the process of bringing the pipeline down from Chittenden County to Middlebury. Now loud opposition is coming from residents of Cornwall and Shoreham. Road signs have popped in many parts of Addison County suggesting that the pipeline would not be safe.

    But opposition extends beyond pure NIMBYism. Natural gas now is commonly referred to as “fracked gas” and Vermonters are urged to reject it. That’s because a high percentage of the natural gas produced in the United States and Canada has been tapped using hydraulic fracturing, a technology with uncertain environmental consequences. Beyond the issue of fracking, critics argue that the nation should not be devoting its resources to a new fossil fuel infrastructure at a time when reducing the use of fossil fuels ought to be our primary economic and environmental goal.

    At the same time, those businesses in Rutland see natural gas as a cheaper fuel alternative that emits less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than fuel oil does. International Paper sees the same thing. Those who view gas as a bridge to a reduced-carbon future say that technological advances can easily reduce the methane emissions and other pollution created by natural gas drilling.

    Two points of view are in tension in the pipeline debate, and it is a tension that is likely to persist for decades to come. On one side, the larger picture shows us that continued burning of fossil fuels will have dire consequences as the climate warms and humanity faces potential hardship and upheaval. Thus, opposition to fossil fuel projects of any sort sends the message that our economies and our societies must change. The proposed Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to Texas has crystallized this point of view: It has sparked a movement comprising environmentalists, ranchers, farmers, Native Americans, ordinary people against the continued corporate exploitation of fossil fuels.

    The smaller picture homes in on individual places — businesses, homes — and the choices that people must make. Thus, it is better if International Paper in Ticonderoga or GE in Rutland burns natural gas rather than fuel oil. It is not the best choice, which would be to switch all industrial uses to renewable energy, but it is a reasonable choice. Before we get to the perfect solution, it makes sense to make step-by-step improvements.

    There are many troublesome ironies of the present moment. At the same time that we know it is vital to wean ourselves from fossil fuels, the United States has boosted its production of fossil fuels to historically high levels. Simultaneously, development of renewable energy, particularly solar power, is growing more rapidly than most people had dared hope. Further, Vermont is taking aggressive steps to promote energy conservation in homes and businesses, reducing the need for thermal and electric power.

    We need continued pressure from those attuned to the larger picture in order to continue to make life difficult for our fossil fuel industries. The companies are being asked to surrender countless billions of dollars in wealth that exists in the form of resources now in the ground that, for the sake of the planet, must not be tapped. Bill McKibben, the author and activist from Ripton, has been a leader in the Keystone XL pipeline debate, and he takes a similar view of the Vermont pipeline.

    But stepping down from dirty fuel to cleaner fuel, if it is part of a movement away from fossil fuel altogether, is a reasonable choice. Vermont Gas Systems may not be able to bring gas to Rutland as fast as Rutland wants, but once it gets there, businesses in the area will have a cleaner fuel to use. If we are in any luck they will thereafter move to the renewable sources that are the ultimate goal.

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