• Pipe dreams
    May 10,2013

    The natural gas pipeline proposed by Vermont Gas Systems is stirring up a potent mixture of energy and environmental issues, combined with old-fashioned NIMBYism and hostility toward corporations.

    A group of students at Middlebury College has presented the college administration with a petition signed by about 1,400 people asking the college to rescind its support for a pipeline that would extend down from Chittenden County, across Addison County and over to the International Paper mill in Ticonderoga, N.Y. Ultimately, a second phase of the project would bring the pipeline down to Rutland County.

    Opposition to the project has taken hold among Addison County residents uncomfortable with the notion of a pipeline running through their fields and near their homes, schools, businesses. Lawn signs have sprouted in Cornwall opposing the pipeline, and community groups are marshalling their forces in Salisbury and other towns.

    The opposition in Cornwall has been so firm that the company has drawn up more expensive alternative routes that would avoid Cornwall by looping around through Salisbury and Leicester to Shoreham and then to Ticonderoga. But residents of Salisbury and Leicester are no more pleased by the prospect of the pipeline than the people of Cornwall are. Residents are concerned about the gas industry’s record of explosions and leaks, but their opposition goes further than that. They worry that expanded use of gas encourages the continuing expansion of the technique of hydraulic fracturing — fracking — that has created a gas and oil boom in many parts of the country. Further, they note that, while natural gas is not as dangerous to the climate as oil and coal, it is a fossil fuel nevertheless, and its combustion contributes to the warming of the planet.

    Administrators at Middlebury College remain sensitive to the needs of the larger community, including industries and the college itself, that could make use of the cheaper fuel. Supporters of the pipeline view natural gas as a fuel that will serve as a less expensive and relatively benign bridge to the innovative, sustainable fuels that it is hoped will eventually replace all fossil fuels.

    Opponents are concerned it will be a bridge to nowhere — except to continued use of fossil fuels.

    Much of the NIMBYism that attends projects such as the pipeline derives from an unwillingness to recognize that we live in an industrial society. In Vermont it’s easy to forget that we do. But an industrial society needs electric power lines, power plants, large highways, factories, mines, quarries, refineries and pipelines. Gas pipelines snake all across the country, and in many places they are a component of day-to-day infrastructure that people don’t even think about.

    All industrial activities create danger — as we saw last month when a methane tank created a huge explosion in Texas. Coal mines cave in, pipelines explode, factory workers die in accidents, high-speed highways claim lives. Rigorous policing of industry is essential to keep us safe, and certainly in the era of deregulation the federal government has fallen down on that job. Even so, NIMBYism remains, in part, a quixotic rejection of industrial society.

    Rejection of the direction of the oil and gas industry is another issue. In the absence of an aggressive policy to address climate change, more and more people are finding they have no recourse but to oppose anything proposed by the fossil fuel industry. These concerns are magnified by the fact that the boom in fracking has outpaced steps to assess the damage it causes to groundwater and the atmosphere.

    The pipeline proposed for western Vermont is a small part of this larger picture, and opponents are using it to make a statement about the larger picture. Arrayed against their concerns are the economic benefits that businesses in Addison and Rutland counties are counting on. Those benefits are real, and the economy, which affects the lives of hard-pressed workers throughout the region, needs help. Vermonters will benefit, and are benefiting, from the advance of sustainable energy and conservation, but for the moment the pipeline is a bridge that ought to prove useful.

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