• Idealists 1, Realists, 0?
    July 21,2013
    Photo Provided

    Local opposition to an Addison County gas pipeline project has taken the form of hand-made yard signs.

    One of my prized possessions is a cartoon published in The New Yorker magazine in 1976. It depicts the outcome of a baseball game between the Realists and the Idealists. The Realists, who are the visiting team, have scored in seven of the nine innings, including six runs in the eighth and another two in their final at bat. The Idealists have been shut out through all nine innings, but the final score shows them winning 1 to 0.

    The cartoon reminds me that daily life may obscure what the larger game is really all about. Is my conduct pointing me toward or away from a vision of the world I regard as worthy of worship?

    The cartoon has been on my mind recently because my congregation — like much of Addison County — is deeply divided over a proposal by Vermont Gas Systems to extend its natural gas pipeline network from Chittenden County to Middlebury by next summer, and then add a western spur that would cross under Lake Champlain to provide natural gas to International Paper’s large mill at Ticonderoga, N.Y. Vermont Gas says these two pipelines would enable it then to extend gas service to Rutland up to 15 years earlier than currently anticipated.

    Pipeline advocates have focused on the anticipated economic benefits, like the $200 million in reduced energy costs the company forecasts for Addison County customers of the first phase over a 20-year period. Backers also argue that burning the gas will reduce Vermont’s contribution to air pollution and climate change because natural gas burns cleaner than the fuel oil it will replace. In addition, they suggest that having a fuel supply tied to sources in western Canada rather than the Mideast will make the region more attractive to investors and entrepreneurs starting new businesses. They also argue that natural gas pipelines have a good safety record compared with oil- or coal-based energy. And the pipeline will generate much needed tax revenue for the towns through which it passes.

    All of this, they say, makes the pipelines a highly desirable “transitional” investment to the era everyone wants where most of our energy comes from renewable sources. No other alternative is “realistic.”

    Pipeline opponents respond that these claims and forecasts are false or highly exaggerated — in other words, unrealistic. They say the forecast savings are based on recent low prices for gas that are unsustainable and do not account for the costs of altering heating systems to use gas rather than oil. They fault the forecasts for underestimating the economic impact of diminished property values along the pipeline route. They calculate that methane leaks during production and shipment — the gas must travel all the way from Alberta, Canada — will more than offset the advantages of any environmental benefits from burning the gas here. Some argue that any pipeline is unacceptably hazardous in an area like Vermont. And they project that Vermont could achieve much more energy cost reduction from investing the same amount in projects like weatherizing older homes and factories.

    I hear a whiff of desperation in these claims. My experience as a journalist tells me the pipeline benefits forecasts are overly optimistic, but efforts to label the benefits as minimal or non-existent are even more problematic. Vermont Gas has delivered enough value to attract and retain tens of thousands of customers around Burlington with its existing pipelines.

    It’s fruitless to argue the public would benefit more from investment in weatherization — that’s not what Vermont Gas is chartered to do (nor is International Paper, which would heavily subsidize the proposed extension to the west). And the “Keep Cornwall Safe” signs sprouting in that community to rally anti-pipeline sentiment seem like fear-mongering to stop the pipeline from going through that particular town, not a compelling argument about the relative safety of the various energy options for our region.

    Nevertheless, I have come to oppose the new pipelines even though I accept that the pipeline backers have, in essence, scored a lot of runs. One fundamental problem is that the gas is increasingly being produced using a method known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Fracking blasts gas loose through injections deep into the earth of chemically laced water at high pressure. In signing a law banning fracking in Vermont last year, Gov. Peter Shumlin said any gas obtained is not worth the risks to groundwater supplies. Now we are told it is worth the risk as long as it is somebody else’s water. If that’s realism, I feel compelled to go to bat for the idealists who say “no way.” Participating in a long-term commitment to get our cities and towns hooked on fracking is not a good use of my one precious life. Fracking strikes me as a potential temporary life support system for dying businesses and communities, but a poor choice for any of us building for tomorrow.

    Any way we look at it, the pipelines represent a huge bet on a hydrocarbon-centered future. If the claimed benefits are born out, they would undermine individual and communal incentives to invest more heavily in energy conservation and renewable sources. Saying no to the pipelines may make the path to a future based on renewables steeper in the short term. We might cede competitive advantages to other states. There would be added social burdens from foregoing the short-term benefits that I and other pipeline opponents could not ethically ignore. But there is an overarching spiritual, emotional and even, I believe, long-term environmental and economic benefit to staying on the path that fits our ideals. As the poet Khalil Gibran once wrote, “Progress lies not in enhancing what is, but in advancing toward what will be.”

    The Rev. Barnaby Feder, a former New York Times business reporter, has been minister of the Champlain Valley Unitarian Universalist Society in Middlebury, since Aug. 1, 2012.

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