Rising Tide Vermont is certainly creating a name for itself. Unfortunately, the association is negative. Mention the name of the group protesting the natural gas pipeline set to be built over the next year from Colchester to Middlebury and the likely reaction will be: “Oh, they’re the rude individuals who interrupt meetings with shouts of accusations, while shutting out the concerns of local residents. They’re the ones tarnishing all opponents of the pipeline with the image of unruly, unlikable, unreasonable and uncompromising protestors who don’t give a hoot about respectful dialogue or rational thought.”
That’s hardly putting your best foot forward.
And like other protestors who have pursued their cause with an all-or-nothing approach, their arrogance is as damaging to the cause as their intent is worthy.
Tuesday’s protest in South Burlington is an example. Vermont Gas Systems was willing to put up with the protestors until they swarmed the front door of the Swift Street headquarters, pushing and shoving a Vermont Gas female employee aside and harming her as she tried to keep access to the door open to the public. Following that, one protestor chained herself to the front doors, saying she was staying there until Vermont Gas stopped construction of the pipeline.
That’s beyond the pale, but not so in the eyes of Rising Tide spokesman Keith Brunner: “The fossil fuel industry is desperate for profits, and they will say anything to protect their bottom line,” he wrote in a press release in an attempt to deny any harm to the employee or wrong-doing by the protestors. “Rising Tide Vermont takes full accountability for today’s actions.”
Vermont Gas Systems looked calm, rational and respectful in comparison. “We’re OK with people expressing their points of view, but we will not tolerate people being hurt,” responded Vermont Gas spokesperson Steve Wark.
There is no question who won this battle on the public relations front. Vermont Gas is being respectful and civil. Rising Tide appears as a bunch of irresponsible anarchists.
Police and Vermont Gas officials are considering assault charges against those involved, but whether any are filed is not the point: The protestors with Rising Tide Vermont betrayed their role. Their intent is to draw attention to the news story, to the greater issue of climate change. It is not to disrupt the day-to-day business affairs of a Vermont firm providing heat to Vermont homes and trying to extend that same privilege and savings to thousands of other Vermonters who want it.
There is a big difference. Peaceful protests that focus on the big-picture message gain the respect of the broader public for their civility, balance and rational thought. Protests where individuals act as bullies in meaningless acts to stop construction of the pipeline, or interrupt public discourse to the point of interfering with the sharing of information at public gatherings, do little more than show disrespect of all others, harming their effort in the long run.
It’s too bad. There is room in the conversation for dissent.
What if, for example, protestors were to accept the realities of the legal and public process already under way and acknowledge that the natural gas pipeline between Chittenden County and Addison County will be built whether they protest the project or not. That is a done deal that a vast majority of residents in Addison County support. It will be completed by 2015, and if protestors want to give their ilk a black eye with other similarly inane protests, so be it, but it won’t change the inevitability.
The question Rising Tide members might want to ask themselves is: Should we be smart and try to get the public on our side, or keep acting like meatheads?
What they could do, for example, is help individuals whose land is being traversed by the pipeline get the Public Service Department to work on their behalf. They could argue for higher land easement payments, more landowner rights, and put in covenants that could hold Vermont Gas Systems liable to remove the pipeline if, or when, the system should ever go defunct, similar to decommissioning a nuclear power plant (the Middlebury selectboard is asking Vermont Gas to remove its pipeline when it is no longer in use, see John Flowers’ story on Page 1A). Our bet is the public would swing to their side on such specific interests.
Protestors could also work with alternative energy proponents at public gatherings around this issue to educate people who are already wary of using more fossil fuels. The intent would be to spread the gospel of renewable energy, while acknowledging the role of natural gas as a bridge fuel — but still pressing the argument that the faster we get off fossil fuel consumption, the better it will be for the planet.
The work to be done on this issue is not closing natural gas down today, but rather ensuring that natural gas is indeed a bridge fuel and that provisions are put into place to move off of it as soon as renewables can meet demand. In the real world, such provisions will inevitably add to the cost of building future pipelines, which is the surest way to slow down or stop unnecessary development — and far more effective than sophomoric acts of defiance.
Angelo S. Lynn