Letter to the Editor: Vote for free easements ensured ‘business as usual’

Perhaps readers of this paper will expect all opponents of the Vermont Gas Pipeline project to be angry at the vote Tuesday to provide free easements across town property for the gas company to reach a group of downtown customers. I’m not. The gas company had the power to ignore the customers if the easements weren’t granted. It also had a financial incentive to avoid paying for the public easements and thus setting a precedent in its dealings with other cities and towns. You can’t blame a gas company for acting on behalf of its investors rather than the public any more than you would blame any other business.
I’m not angry. But I’m sad. Sad for an outcome that suggested we were unable to think creatively about the issues highlighted by opposition to the pipeline. Instead, we voted for business as usual in a world that can ill afford endless business as usual responses to dealing with fossil fuels. Picture this alternative future. The gas company steps up and says “We weren’t lying when we agreed in those public hearings that exploitation of fracked gas piped thousands of miles is not a sustainable energy strategy. We sincerely believe though that this pipeline is a crucial step in transitioning to a world based on renewable energy and much more efficient energy use.”
And then the company says, “We won’t start paying towns for access to customers because that would just give the towns a financial incentive to hook into our product rather than pursue greener energy strategies. But to walk the talk of concern for the public good, we’d consider this deal: if the town will commit to setting up a fund to subsidize greener energy and less use of fossil fuels among the customers we are crossing public land to serve, we will make donations to that fund equivalent to what we pay private landowners for comparable easements. In fact, if those donations are used effectively enough to be a model for other communities, we will double them.”
Picture also a future in which those gas customers looked past the Vermont Gas sales pitches. Picture them thinking creatively and seriously about the branding opportunities available to a town that’s leading in the race to get off of dependence on fossil fuels. Instead of racing to hook up, maybe those customers would find people willing to go out of their way to shop at stores and eat at restaurants striving not just to make money but also to help Middlebury gain a reputation as a destination for people who take climate change seriously.
Finally, picture a future where the selectboard said, “Wait a bit.  Let’s get together with the gas company and the merchants to broker an arrangement that gives everyone a chance to shine.” I know, it’s a lot to ask of our public servants who already give so much to us. And of the gas company. And of the merchants simply struggling to stay afloat through the railroad project.
Right now, though, we seem like we are in a race to make ourselves indistinguishable from every town whose political and business leaders reject science. We happily embraced a pipeline deal structured to delay our transition to sustainable energy, not hasten it. And this week we said to our grandchildren, “We didn’t think we had a choice. Forgive us.”
Rev. Barnaby Feder

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