Opinion: Vermont poised to win new ‘Battle of Cornwall’ against Vermont Gas

Vermont Gas Systems needs a history lesson from my fourth-grade son. In the book he is writing about the Revolutionary War period he says, “I am going to show that Vermonters were independent thinkers during the 1700s, and today they still are.” The short book is packed with information. Vermonters “didn’t want anybody ruling them,” so they “got into the Revolutionary War.” They “made their own country, the Republic of Vermont.” One’s very survival here, my son concludes, depended on being “an independent thinker.”
It is understandable that VGS does not know about Vermonters. It is, after all, a subsidiary of the multibillion dollar Gaz Métro, from Canada, whose executives must never have learned about how the Green Mountain Boys protected their neighbors’ land and crops from New Yorkers who were egged on by the British government to take control of our territory. I think we often forget that the head of state in Canada still is Queen Elizabeth II.
We did not like outsiders telling us what to do with our land then, and we do not like it now. Then, New York tried physical force to get the people to comply. Today, VGS uses the force of money.
Last September the chair of Cornwall’s selectboard asked whether a town that voted “decisively” against a deal could nonetheless “be forced to accept that project.” Bruce Hiland testified to the Public Service Board (PSB) that Phase II of the proposed fracked gas pipeline was “no more attractive to Cornwall than when its voters spoke in March.” Six months after the vote, Hiland lashed out that the project could establish “a ruinous precedent” that an “entity with deep enough pockets can purchase the public good over the objections of directly affected towns.”
Judging by what happened next, VGS must have studied Hiland’s testimony carefully. Like President Lincoln who held his enemies close, VGS snuggled up to Cornwall and its vocal leader. By its own admission, the Cornwall selectboard started meeting with VGS in secret in September, and within three months VGS had convinced the board that it should surrender its opposition to the project and sign a memorandum of understanding (MOU). In other words, the “two track” path peddled by lawyer Ben Marks is a charade, because an MOU demands that Cornwall renounce opposition.
At the very moment on Dec. 16, 2014, when WCAX was running a prematurely leaked story asserting that Cornwall “has now reached a deal to accept the project,” the selectboard was, in reality, getting skewered by a few dozen irate people for betraying their trust, negotiating behind their backs, and for even considering compliance with VGS against their will. The board tabled the issue.
In those three months of negotiating with VGS the selectboard had forgotten the people in Cornwall are independent thinkers with integrity. The mere idea that a bribe to the town ($150,000 each year for 10 years) could silence their objections is insulting. People know well that if they take hush money for the school they will have taught their children a damning — and historically tone deaf — lesson.
Fear not, young, impressionable souls, you do have heroes, they live in Cornwall, and they are true, independent Vermonters. VGS wants your parents and your neighbors to take a “neutral position” in exchange for money because it cannot get a permit to construct the pipeline without having Cornwall in its deep, Canadian corporate pocket. How do we know this? On Dec. 19, two heartbeats after VGS was thwarted by the people of Cornwall, VGS requested a suspension of the Phase II proceedings. Everyone assumes that VGS will want to “un-suspend” if and when it can convince Cornwall to sign an MOU.
In addition to the direct $1.5 million bribe, VGS proposes to spend $2.8 million to bring gas service to half of Cornwall. Fuel distribution via pipeline is suited to high-density population areas. Distribution in Cornwall, even for a gasaholic, is pure madness. But $2.8 million is in reality worth some $80 million-$100 million for VGS because if Cornwall signs an MOU with distribution, VGS will have fabricated a “public good” for Vermont, thereby virtually securing approval for its Phase II permit.
Spoiler alert: People do not want the pipeline or the gas. VGS conducted a push poll in Addison County last summer, asking folks a variety of leading questions. If the push poll results made VGS look good, I assure you they would be shouting the results from the top of Mount Mansfield. But, instead, the town of Cornwall had to file a motion to compel VGS to reveal the results. The PSB granted the request, but VGS came back repeatedly asking for the deadline to be extended from November … and then to December … to January … and finally to March. VGS is desperate to hide the poll, and evidently the most effective way is to keep negotiating with Cornwall and throw more money at the town until it accepts an MOU.
Well, everybody has a price, right? I wonder what Ned Farquhar’s is. In 1989 as the associate director of the Vermont Natural Resources Council he was an outspoken opponent of the Champlain Pipeline, proposed to cut 339 miles across Vermont. That pipeline was run out of town with the help of people like Farquhar. But that was then. Today, Farquhar is a communications consultant for VGS, and presumably a priceless one, since his post-VNRC resume includes the Department of the Interior and Gov. Bill Richardson. Wherein lies the need for such expensive communications?
At a certain point we should be able to say, “If you must spend such an obscene amount of money just to convince people to accept your project then it is no longer decent.”
A company that tries to buy people apparently will sell them, too. VGS customers are a cross-section of the people in Franklin and Chittenden counties, including the elderly and fixed- or low-income. While to customers’ faces VGS touts the savings from gas, behind their backs VGS devised a plan to add a charge to its customers’ monthly bills amounting to $4.4 million every year for 20 years to be used for expanding the pipeline.
If you are thinking that such venture capital would be more rightly put forward by the Canadian multi-billion dollar company gambling on this venture than by unsuspecting customers, then you and I are in agreement. The plan is so duplicitous that many customers do not believe it is true. As they learn the truth, no doubt they will have as low an opinion of the scheme as the early Vermont settlers had of the British tax.
I looked up the Battle of Cornwall — England, 1595. The battle (like so many) reads as historically insignificant with much meaningless bloodshed. On the other side of the fossil fuel era, 420 years later, another Battle of Cornwall has commenced. The outcome will have implications running back up the line for Phase I, to say nothing of our hope for a livable future. Instead of shedding blood if the town is bought by VGS, however, Vermonters will be shedding our independence.
I wager, however, that the spirit of the Green Mountain Boys will rally to the side of the ratepayers and to the people of Cornwall, and the battle for independence will be won with integrity — inviolable and free.
Rebecca Foster

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