Clippings: Vermont’s size is a big strength

Everything in the West is bigger. That was the thought going through my head as our car sped east on Route 2 through North Dakota just after sunset late last August, watching the fluorescent lights of Williston, N.D., flicker away behind us.
They weren’t the only lights. As far as the eye could see, hundreds of fires blazed from holes blasted into the prairie. The scale of industry and vastness of the Great Plains were overwhelming. We drove east pushing 75 mph for almost two hours. For almost two hours, on either side of the road, the fields were burning.
Natural gas is a highly valuable, sought-after energy resource in most parts of the world. But in the plains of rural North Dakota — which rests atop the oil-rich Bakken Shale, the most recently discovered domestic bounty of oil — it isn’t even worth saving. The “black gold” resting in the geologic layers underneath is worth much more and is far less tricky to extract. So when a new well is drilled, either through traditional extraction or hydraulic fracturing, workers simply torch the top layers and wait for the natural gas to burn off so they can get at the oil. It is cost-effective.
“Some of them burn for a year,” our waiter at the recently constructed Applebee’s, one of Williston’s only restaurants at the time, had claimed earlier that night. Like lots of other guys in town, he’d shown up in his car three weeks earlier on a whim and took a minimum-wage job at the restaurant while waiting for a placement with an oil crew. His likely starting salary? Low six-figure, but with ample opportunity to rise — worth the wait. This guy had come from Arizona, but young men were flooding in from every part of the country. After years of the Great Recession, word was spreading that there was still one place in America where anyone could find work.
My boyfriend and I were driving east to Vermont from our families’ homes in the Pacific Northwest, having reduced our belongings to a couple of suitcases each, given abrupt notice on our Oakland, Calif., sublet, and piled into his Subaru for the trip across the country after I’d accepted a job with the Independent in Middlebury, where we’d lived during college. North Dakota wasn’t necessarily on our route, but curiosity had made us take a detour to Williston, which was making splashy headlines at the time as “fracking’s boomtown.”
I wouldn’t be the first to note that Williston’s sprawl most closely resembled a FEMA camp, miles of dusty parking lots hosting thousands of workers living in makeshift shelters or out of their cars. Williston’s housing prices had doubled, and the area had never before had a large population. There weren’t enough buildings, restaurants or stores to keep up with all the people flooding in. So thousands of workers slept in their cars or trailers, paying up to $900 in rent for the parking space. Locals who hadn’t already sold to the oil companies for drilling were pushed out by the new buyers, or left the area due to rising crime. (Last summer, the male-to-female ratio in Williston was 120 to 1. Strolling down the wide commercial drag, passing already-crawling pubs and strip clubs on a bright Friday afternoon half-darkened by the smoggy cloud of grit that hung over the area for miles, I was probably not entirely safe.)
That’s what the poster town of the energy industry looked like.
This wasn’t my first brush with such a place. I had spent two weeks of last June on the phone, reporting on a tiny community in rural Pennsylvania, the Riverdale Mobile Home Park, whose residents were being evicted to make way for the natural gas industry (they were located in a potential floodplain). In itself, Riverdale was unremarkable. Industries displace homes and people all the time. But some residents — “These are people who never would have called themselves ‘activists,’” one source told me — tapped into national and regional networks like the Environmental Action Network and Occupy Cleveland to cause a stink, calling in reinforcements to form a critical mass of residents remaining in their homes after their eviction deadline. The result was a sustained protest that lasted two weeks, until they were finally, and inevitably, forcibly removed from the property. I spoke to one resident who drove trucks for the natural gas industry, shipping fracking’s toxic wastewater from extraction sites to processing facilities. He was torn between loyalty to his community and deference to the industry that employed him.
These are complicated issues. There is rarely an easy moral right or wrong. For the Riverdale truck driver, community won out. He stayed on site past his eviction date, along with several of his neighbors.
I was reminded of Riverdale and Williston on Monday night, sitting in the back of the room at Monkton Central School as the selectboard debated adopting a Memorandum of Understanding with Vermont Gas over the company’s controversial proposed natural gas pipeline through the town.
Of course, Monkton’s situation has only limited similarities to Riverdale’s. No one in Monkton is being evicted, though the prospect of eminent domain has been tossed around in some instances. To its credit, Vermont Gas has negotiated with several towns to make the pipeline more palatable. Nor does the natural gas that the pipeline would run through Addison County have anything directly to do with Williston.
But as several Monkton residents voiced at Monday’s meeting, Vermont’s mini-pipeline controversy is a microcosm of what is fast becoming a global debate about how to approach the future of energy use in general.
It occurred to me during Monday’s impassioned — but mostly quite civil — meeting that these issues and these energy companies split communities in half. Almost simultaneously came the thought that some places are more effectively divided than others.
Vermont is different. That’s a fact that I’ve been reminded of countless times over the last nine months as I’ve sat on your front porches, attended school musicals, shared meals at your kitchen tables, and sat through endless board meetings where underpaid officials strive to save taxpayers each possible cent.
Vermont communities don’t like to be divided; they like to come together. They like to do their best. It’s a question of ethics, a question of character.
In interviews in recent months, some Monkton landowners told me they had been told to let the pipeline run across their front lawn to help their neighbors in Middlebury and Rutland get cheaper fuel. To my surprise, many found that a compelling argument. They were conflicted; they wanted to help neighboring towns, but they didn’t want to compromise the safety of their homes. Again, it was a question of ethics and character.
Many times I have been struck by the notion that Vermont’s smallness is its biggest strength. Monday’s discussion in Monkton reminded me, once again, that Addison County is a remarkable place despite — or because of — its size, a place where some of the more complicated dilemmas of our time play out on a microcosmal scale, and people set an example that others can look to for inspiration. It’s a place where, above all, communities would rather rise to the occasion than take an easy way out, where the small fights are meaningful and can resonate in big ways.

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