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Thursday, Aug 18, 2022

Vermont Gas Pipeline Brings Controversy


On March 22, a number of Middlebury residents attended a public service board meeting to debate the construction of a proposed natural gas pipeline that will run underneath Addison County.

This plan — which involves the construction of a natural gas pipeline from Chittenden County down through Addison County to Ticonderoga, N.Y. — is part of a two-part project undertaken by an energy company based in northern Vermont called Vermont Gas.

Despite the endorsement of the project by a number of large institutions in the Addison County area, town residents are worried about the disruptive impact of the pipeline in their towns and on their farms and the environmental impact of the gas, much of which is derived from the controversial process of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” Residents have launched an opposition campaign to prevent the approval of the project by the public service board

Vermont Gas Systems, operating in Chittenden and Franklin Counties, is spearheading the effort to install natural gas pipelines in order to expand natural gas infrastructure to the middle and southern counties of Vermont. Vermont Gas currently provides energy to roughly 40,000 Vermonters by means of a network of more than 650 miles of subterranean pipelines and, as the Campus reported in January, the company recently built a natural gas pipeline from Canada to Chittenden County.

The expansion and diversification of Vermont’s energy array is an ongoing project that has been undertaken by Vermont Gas’s parent corporation, Northern New England Energy Corporation (NNEEC). NNEEC is the parent company of Vermont Gas, Green Mountain Power and Portland Natural Gas Transmission System.

A larger Quebec energy conglomerate called Gaz Metro administers the NNEEC. Gaz Metro is affiliated with multinational Canadian-based energy corporations Enbridge and Trencap. This broad network of stakeholders complicates decisions made by Vermont Gas on the ground. Anna Shireman-Grabowski ’14.5, an opponent of the proposed pipeline, explains how the complexity of the politics within the natural community can be problematic for local Vermont populations.

“You’re dealing with Gaz Metro, [which is] a Canadian company with an interest in Canadian fracking development,” said Shireman-Grabowski. “Then you’re dealing with Enbridge, who has expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure and general interests in mind.”

Vermont Gas and associates began planning for the pipeline more than two years ago. In the early stages of discussion, Vermont Gas relied largely upon the support of several large institutions to legitimate its claims.

International Paper, a mill in Ticonderoga, N.Y., has been a proponent of the pipeline since the embryonic stages of the project’s proposal. The second segment of the pipeline would terminate in Ticonderoga and provide the mill with an inexpensive source of fuel.

“They’re trying to extend it through Addison County and part of Rutland County and under Lake Champlain to supply International Paper Company through a private contract,” said Shireman-Grabowski.

The agreement to which Shireman-Grabowski is referring is a contract signed by the International Paper company last October to contribute $70 million to the project, which will involve the installment of a pipeline 30 feet under Lake Champlain to deliver natural gas to the mill.

Cabot, another large industrial player in Middlebury who could benefit from the theoretically inexpensive and stable energy provided by a direct natural gas pipeline, also wrote a letter in support of the pipeline.

The third significant institutional endorsement of the pipeline was Middlebury College, which became interested in Vermont Gas while investigating the feasibility of establishing a biomethane transportation network. The College was interested in biomethane, a renewable fuel source that is derived from farm waste and cow manure, and it turned to Vermont Gas as a potential partner.

“Originally, the idea was that the College would invest in alternative infrastructure for the biomethane to go directly from the farms to the school,” said Shireman-Grabowski.

The College and Vermont Gas had different visions for the biomethane transportation network, however. While Middlebury proponents had envisioned a network that solely transported biomethane, Vermont Gas envisioned a dual-purpose pipeline that channeled both natural gas and biomethane.

Although this plan would put a small amount of biomethane into the system, it would require the construction of significant pipeline natural-gas transportation infrastructure. Shireman-Grabowski and others criticize this concept on the grounds that the slim benefits of the biomethane will be outweighed by the perpetuation of reliance on fossil-fuel infrastructure.

“The College can write it off as carbon neutrality even though in order to achieve that Vermont Gas had to build this massive state-long pipeline bringing fracked gas from Canada,” said Shireman-Grabowski. “The externalities are just overwhelmingly huge. “

Shireman-Grabowski suggested that if the College were to seriously look into biomethane, it must do so independently.

Upon learning that the College endorsed the pipeline, a number of students have opened up a dialogue with College administrators to formally rescind the letter of support issued two years ago.

“Students, faculty and staff are coming together to tell the administration we do not support their decision to endorse the pipeline and will engage with them in the process of revoking the College’s support,” said Molly Stuart ’15.5, an opponent of the pipeline.

The natural gas that would be routed through Middlebury if the Vermont Gas project were to come to fruition would largely come from deposits in Alberta. It relies on a system of underground pipelines that transport the gas from western Canada to Quebec. Although initial plans revolved around conventional drilling techniques, most of the oil-drilling sites are switching to the process of fracking.

“It’s important to know that when they signed that letter, nobody knew that the gas was going to come from fracking,” said Shireman-Grabowski. “Originally Vermont Gas had stated that it would all be from conventional drilling.”

Fracking — the highly controversial process of injecting high-pressure fluid into shale deposits to release trapped pockets of natural gas — represents a technological practice that is not yet fully regulated. The process requires a dangerous cocktail of toxic chemicals that, when employed irresponsibly, can contaminate drinking water and cause severe environmental degradation.

“Vermont [considers fracking to be] so dangerous that we will never allow this in our state,” said Shireman-Grabowski, referencing a Vermont law that bans fracking.  “But yet here we are putting in infrastructure that allows [fracking] to happen in Alberta, allows that to happen in New York and puts other communities in danger.”

Critics of the natural gas pipeline point to the potential environmental damage caused by fracking, and the disruptive impact of the physical pipeline in their backyards and on their farms, as evidence that the environmental toll of the proposed pipeline is far too great.

Supporters of the pipeline, however, counter these claims with the argument that the project will provide a number of environmental benefits to the state of Vermont. According to Vermont Gas, the project will reduce the state’s greenhouse gas emissions by 16,000 tons per year, reduce energy usage by creating greater fuel efficiency and reduce the number of large transport vehicles on the road and their emissions.

Although much of the debate is centered on the environmental implications of the natural gas provision, dialogue also focused largely on the economic ramifications of the proposed pipeline.

Gaz Metro’s massive scale and broad network has a number of implications at the local level. According to Shireman-Grabowski, 24 of the 35 people who spoke out in support of the pipeline at a recent public service board meeting worked for Vermont Gas or a company from which Vermont Gas had already solicited support.

The argument for the pipeline offered by the 11 unaffiliated advocates was  that the pipeline would lower energy costs for Vermonters. According to Gaz Metro, natural gas has been 30 percent cheaper than electricity for the average business, and 24 percent cheaper than electricity for a small business in the last twelve years.

“In total the project will reduce Addison County’s energy bills by over 200 million over the next 20 years,” said President and CEO of Vermont Gas Don Gilbert in a press release.

Shireman-Grabowski noted, however, that opponents of the pipeline also advanced an economic counter argument. Critics of Vermont Gas argue that the pipeline is highly economically inefficient. Arguments focus on the fact that money could better be spent elsewhere.

“People have been making really strong economic argument against the pipeline,” said Shireman-Grabowski. “It will only reduce Vermont’s CO2 emissions by 0.16 percent, whereas investing $66 million in weatherizing simply the majority of the homes in Addison County would save an amount of energy vastly larger than that.”

In the initial proposal, Vermont Gas outlined a timeline in which the pipeline would be live by late 2014. The numerous opponents to the pipeline, however, have already introduced a number of complaints that will delay the process for at least a year and perhaps indefinitely.

Tension is increasing as Vermont Gas begins the preliminary surveying for the pipeline even without the final decision of the public service board.

“We have every reason to believe that somebody from Vermont Gas contacted someone in the Vermont transit authority and asked them to take down the signs,” said Shireman-Grawbowski, referencing an incident in which a municipal employee who, at the insistence of Vermont Gas officials, took down a number of protest signs that had been put up by opponents of the pipeline. “They’re playing dirty before they’ve even got approval for this project, which just goes to show you how much they’re counting on it going through.”

The public service board will select a number of opponents as formal “interveners” in coming weeks. These people will lodge formal complaints and form the basis for the debate over the commencement of phase one of the project, which will ultimately decided upon in a public service meeting on September 11. In coming weeks, Shireman-Grabowski and number of Middlebury students — many of whom have already attended public service board meetings to offer their perspectives — will meet with President of the College Ronald D. Liebowitz and Vice President and Treasurer for Finance Patrick Norton to discuss the option of formally rescinding support for the pipeline.

Representatives of Vermont Gas will be in attendance at a town meeting in Middlebury on April 15 on Monday night. Middlebury students and faculty are encouraged to attend and offer their perspectives on the issue.