Middlebury College president explains pipeline support; pipeline opponents offer a rebuttal

Middlebury College President Ronald Liebowitz on Monday, May 6, sent a message to the college community explaining his institution’s position on Vermont Gas Systems’ proposal to build a natural gas pipeline through Addison County.
On Wednesday, a group of area residents and college students who want Middlebury College to rethink its position released a rebuttal to Leibowtiz.
What follows are the two documents for readers to evaluate for themselves.
President Liebowitz’s email of May 6, 2013:
To Middlebury Students, Faculty, and Staff,
During the past few weeks, a number of members of the Middlebury community have expressed their opposition to the construction of a natural gas pipeline from Colchester, VT, which is north of Burlington, to Chittenden and Addison counties in Vermont. Middlebury College wrote a letter of support in March 2011 for what is now referred to as Phase I of the pipeline project, and while we have been asked to withdraw that support, we continue to believe that the pipeline will benefit the region and the College in numerous ways for years to come.
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, or the lack of sufficient alternative sources of comparable energy in the near term. 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.
Phase I of the Addison Natural Gas Project is a 41-mile natural gas transmission pipeline, with associated facilities in Middlebury, New Haven and Williston, Vermont. The project will allow for the distribution of natural gas to about 2,000 homes and businesses in Middlebury, and another 1,000 in Vergennes. For the first time, these homeowners and businesses will have the choice of converting their current fuel-oil heating systems to cheaper, cleaner natural gas. The Middlebury Select Board and Middlebury Planning Commission both support the extension of natural gas service to the town of Middlebury, as does Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin. Cabot Creamery, one of the area’s largest employers, strongly supports the pipeline and says it will save the farmers’ cooperative hundreds of thousands of dollars a year while benefitting the environment. Cabot’s cheese-making facility in Middlebury employees 120 workers and produces 55 million pounds of cheese a year.
Homeowners who are able to connect to the natural gas distribution network stand to save between $1,500 and $2,000 each year. For businesses in the area, the savings they achieve can create the opportunity for new jobs, or make the difference between staying in business, moving to another state or shutting down altogether, which has happened too often in recent years. For public institutions such as schools and healthcare facilities, it means reduced costs at a time when funding streams are stagnant or being cut. Middlebury College has a long history of working closely with our community to support and stimulate economic activity. We know that many families and businesses in our region are struggling. The pipeline can provide them with a less expensive and cleaner burning alternative to high-carbon fuel oil.
The proposed pipeline is meaningful to the College and the local farming economy for another reason. To help fulfill the College’s goal of reducing our own carbon footprint, as well as our ambitious commitment to becoming a carbon-neutral campus by 2016, we hope to launch a bio-methane gas project that will create renewable natural gas using manure from local dairy farms and food waste from area businesses. The project, which will connect to the pipeline, will allow the College to reduce our use of fuel oil by approximately 640,000 gallons a year. We also are hopeful that the existence of the pipeline will encourage and support other bio-methane projects in the area as a way to diversify and increase farm revenues.
One of the primary complaints being voiced against the pipeline is that some of the natural gas it transmits may be extracted through hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking. Unquestionably, this is true. The natural gas that Vermont Gas transmits to Vermont currently, and that would pass through the pipeline to Middlebury, originates in western Canada, and some portion of it is fracked.
We understand that fracking is a controversial issue and that many people object to fracking in all circumstances. However,the steep increase in the amount of fracked natural gas in the North American distribution system means that it is virtually impossible to ensure delivery of only unfracked natural gas. It is important to note that the same is true for fuel oil and the gasoline used in automobiles, both of which are products of crude oil, which increasingly is extracted using hydraulic fracking.
We are concerned about the environmental impact of fracking and support efforts at the local, state and federal levels to ensure that extraction of gas and oil is done safely and responsibly. We also support efforts to develop and distribute energy produced by renewable technologies that reduce the use of fossil fuels. The College has been a leader on this front and has embraced the use of alternative energy sources such as biomass, solar and wind.
Middlebury remains committed to reducing its carbon footprint and to achieving carbon neutrality on our campus by 2016. We are equally resolved to increasing the use of clean, renewable energy. We believe that our support for the natural gas pipeline to Middlebury is consistent with Middlebury College’s long-standing commitment to the environment and to the economic well-being of the community around us.
Ron Liebowitz
Response to the Middlebury College president:
Dear President Liebowitz and Members of the Board of Trustees:
In your email letter on Monday to the Middlebury community you present what are presumably your best arguments in support of the Addison Natural Gas Project (ANGP). You also make some assertions. Please see below brief responses to your points in the order presented. We would be happy to engage in a more elaborate dialogue on individual points or the project as a whole at your invitation.
1. Natural gas is “cheaper” and “cleaner.” The low cost projections of natural gas for the ANGP were based on an anomalous point in time, and the expectation among credible sources is that the price of natural gas will go up — some say sharply — and is as volatile as the substance itself.
The entire life cycle of natural gas must be considered, not just the user end. New research helps us to understand that natural gas is as dirty from cradle to grave as coal due to the methane emissions at the point of extraction.
2. The natural gas pipeline will “benefit the environment.” Unless we’re talking about smog in Los Angeles or other local phenomenon, when we talk about emissions we’re talking about a global phenomenon, overall greenhouse gases (GHG) emitted into the atmosphere. The methane emissions in Alberta, Canada, accelerate climate change and as such are as damaging to Vermont as to Alberta. Sourcing the environmental problem in Alberta does not mean that the environmental impacts remain in Alberta.
3. There is a lack of “sufficient alternative sources” of energy in the near term.
The best alternative energy is found in energy savings, which should always be fully exploited before investing in new energy sources, even renewables. See point 5 below.
4. The 3,000 homeowners and businesses that would be hooked up to natural gas through the ANGP would save $1,500 to $2,000 annually.
See above questioning the claimed savings.
Even accepting the claimed savings as accurate, Vermont ratepayers would pay $66.6M for the extension of gas service to these 3,000 other customers, which comes out to roughly 22K per new customer. 22K per customer so that said customer can save $1,500/year. That’s an almost 15 year payback on someone else’s investment. If one were to use more realistic figures on the cost of gas, the payback would extend increasingly into the future.
5. The pipeline will be good for struggling families and businesses in the area.
The pipeline would not be good for the economy. Its construction would be by specialized labor not in the Vt market, and according to Vermont Gas Systems it would create 20 new permanent jobs.
Alternatively, spending the same $66.6M on weatherizing every household in Addison County would save every household (over 14,000 not just 3,000 customers) $1,000/year AND create 800 new jobs. Cost savings and new employment are the best things for struggling families. Employed families that pay less for energy are able to purchase Cabot cheese.
6. A natural gas pipeline will encourage expansion of bio-methane in the area.
Natural gas would discourage bio-methane development. First, because bio-methane developers who believe in clean, renewable, locally-sourced energy will not want to commingle their product with fracked gas from multinational pipeline developers. Second, with natural gas already in place serving customers there would be a reduced incentive for people to invest in bio-methane or any other renewable alternative.
7. “Some portion” of the gas “may be extracted through hydraulic fracturing.” The gas flowing through the pipeline to Colchester is already, as freely admitted by Don Gilbert, obtained through fracking. Vermont Gas System’s position is not to obfuscate by minimizing the proportion of fracked to conventional gas, but to proclaim that fracking is a safe process.
The way the supply of natural gas works in the age of extreme energy in which we live is that all of the easily extractable gas is gone or going, and in order to keep up production for pipelines that are designed to last 100 years it will have to be increasingly fracked. “Some portion” now; “completely” before too long.
8. So much fracking exists now in North America that we can’t tell it apart from unfracked gas therefore it’s okay to use.
Strained logic aside, see points 1 and 2. Fracked or not, methane emissions at the extraction point are equally bad. Fracking adds exponentially to local ground, water, and air contamination, but conventional extraction is hard on the local environment as well. Even if the sources were entirely conventional, the ANGP would not be acceptable for all of the same reasons.
9. “We are concerned about the environmental impact of fracking and support efforts…to ensure that extraction…is done safely and responsibly.” We want to see evidence of the college “supporting” such efforts. Have you called for the dismantlement of the fracking industry’s protections against transparency, or the Cheney-inspired waivers from abiding by standard environmental regulations? By what standard do you measure “safe” and “responsible” fracking? Have you threatened to divest from companies engaging in fracking if “safe” and “responsible” measures are not taken? Have you divested?
10. Middlebury College aims to be carbon neutral by 2016.
Even if the college never takes a drop of natural gas from this pipeline, the fact that it is putting its power behind the project — not just remaining neutral but actively pushing for it — means that the devastation wrought by this pipeline, from on the ground in Alberta to the pipeline route through our Vermont communities to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions and accelerating climate change, must be factored into its self-congratulatory carbon tally. Neutrality will be forever out of the college’s reach.
By withdrawing your active support for ANGP, you can take the time to consider the implications of this project on the college’s environmental legacy. We hope and trust that you are students of history and can see that, like it or not, a post-fossil fuel world is fast-approaching. It is time for the college to be a visionary leader in creating the systems and articulating the values necessary to build that world or risk irrelevancy.
Rebecca Foster
Amitai Ben Abba ‘15.5
Laura Asermily
Sara Bachman ‘13.5
Jennifer Baker
John Beattie ’66
Will Bennington
Barbara Bosworth
Kevin Burget
Sally Burrell
Jono Chapin
Tim Clemens ’73
Ross Conrad
Cailey Cron ‘13.5
Alice Eckles
Elizabeth Frank
Deb Gaynor ’77
Mary Gerdt
Kristina Johansson ’14
Jason Kaye
Barbara Karle
Hanna Mahon ‘13.5
Sara Mehalick
Bethany Barry and Andrew Menkart
Brennan Michaels ’66
Jane and Nate Palmer
Ruby Perry
Avery Pittman
Tad and Priscilla Powers
Jay Austin Saper
Andy Simon
Ron Slabaugh
Molly Hartnett Stuart
Martha Waterman
Editor’s note: Look for a story on the protest staged at Middlebury College over this issue in the May 9 edition of the Addison Independent.

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