Middlebury College is viewed as one of the greenest academic institutions in the country, but its support for a proposed natural-gas pipeline in Addison County is putting that reputation to the test. Last week a group of students and faculty presented college officials with a petition demanding the school adopt a neutral position on the Vermont Gas Systems project. Adding to the awkwardness: Among the 1400 signers is the college’s “distinguished scholar” and celebrated climate-change activist Bill McKibben.
In response to the petition, Middlebury President Ron Liebowitz reaffirmed the college’s pro-pipeline position. In a prepared statement, he said access to natural gas would offer Addison County residents and employers “a less expensive and cleaner-burning alternative to high-carbon fuel oil” while noting a “lack of sufficient alternative sources of comparable energy.”
“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,” 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.”
“Perfectly sensible” is how McKibben describes Liebowitz’s assessment of natural gas as a cleaner, cheaper alternative to oil. But the Ripton resident adds that its relatively lower CO2 output is “outweighed by the fact that we don’t want to lock in fossil-fuel infrastructure at this point.” McKibben, who has gotten arrested for protesting the Keystone XL pipeline that would carry tar-sands oil from Canada to Texas, uses the same logic to argue against one carrying natural gas from Colchester to Middlebury.
McKibben is founder of the climate-activism group 350.org, the name of which refers to the goal of reducing atmospheric CO2 to below 350 parts per million. In the same week Middlebury was debating pipeline pros and cons, the daily level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere exceeded 400 parts per million for the first time in the history of scientific data collection. On 350.org’s website, McKibben wrote in response:
“We’re in new territory for human beings — it’s been millions of years since there’s been this much carbon in the atmosphere. The only question now is whether the relentless rise in carbon can be matched by a relentless rise in the activism necessary to stop it.”
Middlebury sophomore Anna Shireman-Grabowski helped gather signatures on the petition against the pipeline. The sociology major argues that substantial energy savings could be achieved by spending $92 million — the projected price tag of the Addison County pipeline — on weatherization initiatives instead. She notes that the company already prides itself on saving customers money through its existing weatherization programs.
Carbon-neutral alternatives to natural gas are closer to reality than pipeline supporters claim, adds Middlebury senior Cailey Cron. “There’s a lot of potential in bio-methane,” Cron says, pointing to the college’s own plan to reduce its fuel-oil consumption by building a bio-methane plant. Generating natural gas using manure from nearby dairy farms and food waste from local businesses could save Middlebury 640,000 gallons a year, according to college estimates.
The student activists also note that much of the gas to be pumped through the proposed pipe will be extracted through an environmentally harmful process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. In addition to potentially contaminating local water supplies, fracking releases methane, which, Shireman-Grabowski points out, is “about 21 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2.”
Liebowitz, Addison County business leaders and reps from Vermont Gas Systems all acknowledge the fracking concern. But they say natural gas is still preferable to fuel oil. “I absolutely appreciate the environmental issues,” says Robin Scheu, director of the Addison County Economic Development Corporation. “But I don’t see reducing the impact of fossil fuels and use of natural gas as an either-or at this point in time. It should be seen as both-and.” She says fuel oil, which is much dirtier, remains the only feasible alternative to natural gas for the foreseeable future.
Money is a major motivator for pipeline proponents. The proposal has virtually unanimous support from Addison County political leaders and businesses interest, such as Cabot Creamery and Goodrich aerospace systems in Vergennes. The anticipated savings from converting from oil to cheaper natural gas will preserve jobs and “maybe allow businesses to hire more people and to pay them a bit better,” says Andy Mayer, president of the Addison County Chamber of Commerce.
One of Addison County’s largest employers, Cabot estimates that switching to natural gas will save the company $3 million a year. Homeowners who connect to the pipeline can expect to spend $1900 less annually for heating and cooking, according to Vermont Gas Systems. “In total,” company president Don Gilbert told the state’s public service board, “the project will reduce Addison County’s energy bills by over $200 million over the next 20 years.”
Cutting energy costs “levels the playing field” between Addison County and areas with access to natural gas “in terms of retaining and recruiting employers,” adds Scheu, the economic development director. She argues that availability of natural gas, which currently costs 43 percent less than fuel oil, will enable her region to compete more effectively with Chittenden County, which has long offered businesses that cheaper energy option.
In a recent editorial endorsing the project, the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus characterized the motivation of some opponents as “NIMBYism.” For evidence, the newspaper cited Addison County landowners who express concern about their proximity to the buried pipe
Vermont Gas Systems spokesman Steve Wark attributes worries about leaks and explosions to “unfamiliarity” with natural-gas pipelines. Vermont Gas, a subsidiary of Montreal-based Gaz Métro, has operated a pipeline in Chittenden and Franklin counties for the past 50 years without any serious incidents, Wark notes. And there’s been almost no opposition to the company’s extension of its existing pipe to Richmond and Enosburg, he adds.
Resident resistance to the Middlebury pipeline project extends to some Cornwall and Shoreham property owners whose lands lie on the route of a planned extension from Middlebury under Lake Champlain to the International Paper plant in Ticonderoga, N.Y. That second phase of the pipeline project, estimated to cost $50 million, has not yet been formally proposed to the Vermont Public Service Board, which regulates the state’s utilities.
Some opponents of the link under Lake Champlain argue that it will be of little economic benefit to Vermont. Wark notes, however, that International Paper has agreed to pay most of the cost of running the pipe from Middlebury to Ticonderoga. And that will bring natural gas 17 miles closer to Rutland County, thus lopping 15 years off the company’s original 25-year timetable for serving customers in the Rutland area, Wark says.
Having access to natural gas will be “a game-changer for us,” adds Donna Wadsworth, a spokeswoman for International Paper’s Ticonderoga factory. That plant has the highest energy cost of any mill operated by International Paper, she notes. And while the factory’s 600 employees include only about a dozen Vermonters, close to 20 percent of the wood fiber used at the plant comes from Vermont, Wadsworth says.
The public service board could rule on the Colchester-to-Middlebury project by the end of this year, Wark says; a favorable decision could turn on the gas by the end of next year. If the second phase is approved, International Paper could convert from oil to natural gas by the end of 2015.