Community Forum: How not to build a natural gas pipeline
This week’s writer is Annette Smith, executive director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment, a grassroots nonprofit organization based in Danby that follows major energy projects throughout the state. Its objective is to bring “environmental justice and corporate accountability to Vermont communities.” Smith is a paid staff member, and an environmental lobbyist.
How Not to Build a Natural Gas Pipeline
Vermont Gas Systems is well on its way to repeating the same mistakes made when the Champlain Pipeline was proposed in the 1980s and “Southern Vermont Natural Gas” proposed pipelines to serve two gas power plants in southwestern Vermont in the late 1990s. The failure of those two other efforts has led some people to say that it is difficult to construct pipelines in Vermont.
Yes, it is difficult. But the gas companies are the ones making it difficult, by their poor public process. The Addison Independent has done an excellent job of reporting on VGS’s failures to keep the residents of Hinesburg and Monkton aware of their route changes. And now Cornwall and Shoreham are getting a taste of how VGS engages with landowners and towns.
At a public meeting held in Middlebury on Feb. 27, VGS let it be known in its presentation that they intend to work with people through a stakeholder process for Phase II of their project. A Middlebury selectboard member picked up on the reference and asked what exactly they are talking about and what can be expected in terms of participation.
Steve Wark of VGS referred to a man in the back of the room and introduced Jim Hamilton.
Who is Jim Hamilton? Most recently, he has worked for his own company, Stakeholder Consulting (www.stakeholderconsulting.com), which he formed after he left his job working for Omya. Omya hired him away from Conservation Law Foundation Ventures, which was the consulting firm Omya hired to implement the legislatively mandated study of its processing plant in Florence, Vt. Hamilton led CLF-V’s facilitation of the community-based stakeholder process where members of the Florence community, representatives of Omya, the town, and the state worked together to write a request for proposal, agree on experts to hire, and hear the results of their work.
Through what was known as the Section 5 study, the consultants found that Omya’s process contained a toxic chemical (that Omya was unaware of) and identified numerous issues with groundwater pollution at the site. The study was successful in terms of improvement of environmental protection and community relations. However, the success of that process was in spite of, not because of, Jim Hamilton’s involvement.
Jim Hamilton was the person who met with all the parties. He was the person everyone confided in. So it came as more than a surprise when Hamilton called one day from an airport to announce (“before you read it in the paper”) that he was leaving CLF-V to go work for Omya. This job change came in the middle of the Section 5 process. The consultants who were hired almost quit. Those of us who confided in Jim felt that he had betrayed our trust, and we were astonished that someone in his position would engage in such an ethical violation.
We learned a lot from the Omya stakeholder process, and when J.P. Carrara and Sons wanted to expand its gravel pit in East Middlebury, Vermonters for a Clean Environment (VCE) advised the citizens and the company on how to do it differently, and they worked together for two years in a community-based stakeholder process.
VCE was formed in 1999 to deal with the natural gas power plant and pipeline project, and in 2000 we attended one of several workshops sponsored by Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) called “Facilitating Natural Gas Pipeline Construction.” The first meeting was held in Albany, and about 100 of us attended. Mostly it was people in the gas pipeline business, along with about a dozen citizens from surrounding states who had dealt with pipeline proposals. Somewhat surprisingly, the substance of the meeting was FERC telling the gas pipeline companies they were doing a poor job of public engagement, they were upsetting communities and not getting their projects built. Several people presented good information about how to do it differently, more collaboratively, and with a greater likelihood of success.
When VGS proposed its gas pipeline two years ago, VCE reached out to VGS, with the support of Vermont’s Public Service Department. We had been discussing community-based stakeholder processes with the department, and they encouraged us to try working with VGS to advise them on how to do a community-based stakeholder process to avoid the pitfalls that have been so damaging to citizens and communities dealing with energy projects. Our goal was not to promote the gas pipeline, but remain agnostic about the project and instead focus on good public process. We met with VGS, and followed up with advice when we saw they weren’t doing it right.
Instead of learning from past mistakes, VGS has taken the bullying corporate route, destroying trust at every step. Hiring Jim Hamilton may be an attempt to clean up the mess that VGS has created, but hiring someone who has a track record in Vermont of violating the trust of stakeholders in an ongoing process only raises concerns about VGS’s approach to public outreach.
VGS’s pipeline project seems well on its way to failing, if VGS keeps up the arrogant attitude it has so far displayed towards the towns and people it needs to make its project succeed. VGS is once again showing how not to build a natural gas pipeline in Vermont.