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Editorial: Gas and the public good

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Posted on May 20, 2013 |
By Angelo Lynn



The Middlebury Select Board made as eloquent and rational an argument for supporting the Vermont Gas pipeline to Middlebury as can be made. The statement, which was published as a letter accompanying a front-page news story in last Thursday’s Addison Independent, is considerate of others’ perspectives, well-reasoned on all points, and defends what it sees as the best path at this time for the town and residents of Middlebury.

They also framed their position well, as follows: “The select board is a deliberative body that develops policy and makes decisions for the public good. To that end we are listeners and learners, attentive to public needs and desires and the best information available to us. There are occasions when there is no easy harmony among the things we hear and learn and we must make hard judgments. But always, it is the public good as far as it can be assessed that determines our judgment.”

Assessing the public good, of course, is a matter of individual perspective.

From the select board’s perspective, they supported Phase I of the project for the following reasons: the average residential user of natural gas compared to oil heat (the predominant fuel in town and less expensive than propane or electricity) will save $1,200 to $2,000 per year; most businesses will save even more; the town’s schools, larger businesses and commercial enterprises can save tens of thousands, if not more. Porter Hospital, for example, has an annual heating bill of more than $1,000,000 — saving 30 to 40 percent on that amount makes a real difference — and the same is true with area schools. With the savings in our schools, more courses and teachers can be kept rather than cut.

As the select board wrote: “Employers, large and small, tell us that he availability of natural gas will allow them to remain competitive and stay in business in Middlebury.” They are talking about friends and neighbors being able to keep their businesses healthy and keeping their lives intact in the town they love.

Unfortunately, sources of renewable energy are not at a capacity in today’s market to play a similar role. The select board admits that those sources of energy are desirable and should be part of a long-term strategy, but it is not today’s reality. The board also makes a pertinent point concerning the demand for thermal energy and industrial/commercial uses, citing a United Nations Industrial Development Organization report that states that alternative fuels used in manufacturing will likely represent up to 21 percent of total industrial usage. Even if that number is substantially higher, the board says, “the overall message is that for many years to come, a large part of our industrial energy needs will depend on the use of coal, oil, natural gas or nuclear power.

“Manufacturing represents a critical part of Middlebury’s economic stability and future,” the board’s statement continues, citing Agri-Mark Cabot, Green Mountain Beverage and Otter Creek Brewing as three examples, and noting that Agri-Mark expects to save roughly $3 million annually on heating costs if it can switch to natural gas. “These companies, as well as the other quality manufacturers that we want to attract, will hopefully replace the more than 300 lost jobs, and provide significant growth to our grand list. A greater grand list brings greater (tax) revenues, better public services, and perhaps, lower taxes.”

The board confronts the myth of the dangers of natural gas pipelines, noting it is one of the safest fuels used, and challenges criticism of Vermont Gas for its handling of the project, noting its dealings with the town and its 45 year history of doing business in the state. Could things have been done better? Surely, but perfection is rarely found in such a complex and controversial setting.

If this is a weakness in the select board’s argument, it is that they don’t deign more to the ill effects of climate change. They recognize those ills, but defer to the pragmatic reality of what we can do best today to reduce our short-term carbon footprint and provide the economic means necessary to maintain a healthy (rather than dying) community.

What’s clear in their overview is that their focus is the public good of Middlebury and its residents. Another group charged with managing the state’s welfare might well conclude the same. A group charged to represent the nation, however and if it were given purview to create federal policy, might press for a longer-term solution, reduce fossil fuel use and promote renewable energy to a much higher degree — recognizing the long-term benefits would be in the nation’s best interest. A body of officials elected to represent the planet would surely rule against any future long-term development of fossil fuels and move to renewable energy as quickly as possible.

The reasons are plain: From a global perspective, those warning of the ill effects of climate change have won the battle. For the most part, the world recognizes a force —carbon dioxide— that is wreaking havoc on the planet. Game over.

But economic challenges remain and the more provincial the battle, the more critical those economic concerns become. Particularly in the United States, where states compete against each other to attract business, it is difficult to be an island-state that aims to be fossil fuel free and still have a viable economy. That is particularly true over the next 20 years. That doesn’t mean Vermont and Middlebury shouldn’t push toward greater use of renewable energy in deliberative and far-reaching ways, but it does mean that short-term economic forces are part of the equation and must be part of the ongoing dialogue and solution.

Angelo S. Lynn

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