MIDDLEBURY — Add one more to the list of communities divided in support or opposition of Vermont Gas Systems’ Addison Natural Gas Project.
On Tuesday, a small but vocal group of Middlebury College students and a handful of residents from surrounding towns marched down Mead Chapel Hill to the administrative offices in Old Chapel with signs decrying fracked natural gas. Once there, they handed the college’s Chief Financial Officer, Patrick Norton, a petition with 1,400 signatures asking the college administration to revoke its support for the pipeline project.
VGS’s proposed project is a two-phase, multi-million-dollar pipeline that would bring natural gas from western Canada through Addison County to Ticonderoga, N.Y. VGS officials say they hope to one day serve Rutland. Phase I of the project, which brings the pipeline from Colchester to homes and businesses in Middlebury and Vergennes, is currently being reviewed by the Vermont Public Service Board. VGS has released potential routes for Phase II, which would extend the pipeline from Middlebury to the International Paper Co. mill at Ticonderoga.
Students leading Tuesday’s march said the college should reconsider its position in light of the environmental damage that harvesting natural gas through hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” causes. They also said the college needs to take into account the safety risks if the pipeline were to leak, and they presented an economic reassessment of the project to college officials. That reassessment included variability in gas prices and accounting for the cost of converting systems to burn natural gas, according to student organizer Anna Shiremon-Grabowski, a junior at the college and Vermont resident.
“We had compiled this information and spoken to (college president) Ron (Liebowitz) about passing it on to Patrick (Norton),” Shiremon-Grabowski said. “But after speaking with (college officials) it was clear that they were intent on sticking with an argument that works for them rather than looking through what the real facts of the situation are, and what people in the community have to say about it.”
On Monday, Liebowitz released a statement reaffirming Middlebury College’s support for the pipeline.
“While we continue to listen to, and understand, the arguments against the pipeline, we believe that they do not fully take into account the economic needs of the communities around us, or the lack of sufficient alternative sources of comparable energy in the near term,” Liebowitz said. “Ultimately, we believe the pipeline will contribute to the economic welfare of the region and that it would be unacceptable for us to stand in the way of real and measurable progress toward goals broadly shared in our community.”
Asked whether they had found the economic reassessment compelling, Bill Burger, the college’s vice president of communications, said the college had a different interpretation.
“We have spent a lot of time discussing and looking at the issue from all sides,” he said in an interview after the demonstration. “After considerable discussion we decided to reaffirm support for the project. The students acting in opposition to the pipeline — who are a minority of students on campus — have strong views on the information that the college doesn’t share.”
The petition submitted by the students was signed by 1,400 people affiliated with the Middlebury College and Addison County communities, though only a few dozen participated in Tuesday’s march.
Monkton landowner Nate Palmer, who was profiled in the Feb. 25 issued of the Independent, was one of around a half dozen Addison County landowners to attend the rally.
The pipeline would intersect Palmer’s property on Rotax Road. Though the Palmers have denied VGS permission to build, the South Burlington company would be able to work on the property by invoking eminent domain if the project is granted a Certificate of Public Good by the Public Service Board.
Palmer had started to address the gathered group when, in an ill-timed entrance, Burger and Norton emerged from Old Chapel to receive the petition just as the group began applauding Palmer.
“We’ll come back when you finish up,” Burger said, reiterating that Norton could only stay for a moment to receive the petition.
The quick entrance and exit did not impress the protesters.
“This is emblematic,” the group shouted, “of how the college has treated the community on this issue for the past year.”
Palmer — who later told the Independent that he had begun attending many protests and events in recent months, since learning the pipeline would affect his property — then shared some of his story with the gathered Middlebury students.
“I’ve been trying to formulate what I was going to say to the administration, and it’s really too bad that they left because I was going to tell them that I was really proud of what Middlebury College has done in the past few years in trying to get carbon neutral,” Palmer said, pointing to the college’s accomplishments in creating emissions-reducing fuel like its biomass plant and other renewable energy sources. “But to all of a sudden take a little turn and put fracked gas in the system, you wonder what’s going on.”
DEBATING THE FACTS
Opponents and supporters of the pipeline have clashed in interpretations of the economic and environmental impacts of the project. In his Monday statement, Liebowitz reiterated the college’s support for the project, saying it would be a cost-effective way of achieving its goal of carbon neutrality by 2016. Middlebury College, along with other large area businesses like the Cabot cheese plant on Exchange Street in Middlebury and Goodrich in Vergennes, would receive gas from Phase I of the Addison Natural Gas Project.
At the same time, Liebowitz acknowledged the environmental concerns around the pipeline project.
“We understand that fracking is a controversial issue and that many people object to fracking in all circumstances,” Liebowitz said. “However, the steep increase in the amount of fracked natural gas in the North American distribution system means that it is virtually impossible to ensure delivery of only unfracked natural gas. It is important to note that the same is true for fuel oil and the gasoline used in automobiles, both of which are products of crude oil, which increasingly is extracted using hydraulic fracking.”
A rebuttal written by Charlotte resident Rebecca Foster and distributed at the march countered with the argument that fracking uniquely adds “exponentially to local ground contamination and resource use.” Further, she argued that methane emissions at the extraction point have an impact on the regional and global environment, regardless of whether the fossil fuel is extracted through hydraulic fracking or conventional methods.
“Unless we’re talking about smog in Los Angeles or other local phenomenon, when we talk about emissions we’re talking about a global phenomenon, overall greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere,” Foster wrote. “The methane emissions in Alberta, Canada, accelerate climate change and as such are as damaging to Vermont as to Alberta. Sourcing the environmental problem in Alberta does not mean that the environmental impacts remain in Alberta.”
Protesters also question whether the pipeline is truly good for the economy. Though 3,000 homes will have the option of converting to natural gas delivered by the Phase I pipeline, the cost of converting a home heating system may be higher than some families are able to pay. Liebowitz said in his statement that converting to natural gas would save homeowners between $1,500 and $2,000 annually, a figure that VGS has also stated in the past.
But Foster argued that those figures are based on an unrealistic expectation of gas prices in the future.
“The low cost projections of natural gas for the (Addison Natural Gas Project) were passed on an anomalous point in time, and the expectation among credible sources is that the price of natural gas will go up — some say sharply — and is as volatile as the substance itself,” she wrote.
She also argued that serving 3,000 customers did not justify the millions that would be spent by Vermont ratepayers in constructing the pipeline.
“Even accepting the claimed savings as accurate, Vermont ratepayers would pay $66.6 million for the extension of gas service to these 3,000 other customers, which means roughly $22,000 per new customer. $22,000 per customer so that said customer can save $1,500 per year. That’s an almost 15-year payback on someone else’s investment.”
Pipeline opposition from some in the Middlebury College community also ties back to campus conversations on divestment.
Tuesday’s protest organizers encouraged those gathered to attend a demonstration outside of the administrative building during the college board of trustees’ meeting this coming weekend. The students intended to push for divestment, as well as rejection of the VGS pipeline.
Burger said that while those topics might be discussed by the trustees, “certainly no action is planned.”