Ways of Seeing by Alice Leeds: Real choice on gas pipeline is now

This summer the Bristol selectboard signed an agreement with Vermont Gas Systems to build a pipeline through our village. I am part of a group of Bristol residents taking steps to assure our legal right to a public binding vote on this issue.
Our selectboard and VGS contend that each resident has the freedom to choose whether or not to purchase fuel delivered through the proposed pipeline. However, this view bypasses an important concern. Once the distribution line is in the ground, much of the harm — both local and global — will already be done.
As noted in recent headlines, pipelines pose a local danger. Buried gas lines, even the most modern ones, explode, causing loss of life and destruction of property. According to the federal agency tracking these things, between one and 200 distribution lines like the one VGS proposes explode every year in this country, more than half resulting in fatalities. Most explosions occur when workers for utilities other than gas companies — like water, electric or phone — dig too near a gas pipeline.
Consider how frequently your water gets turned off in Bristol due to leaks and necessary repairs. Ours was turned off so often these past few months we now keep gallon jugs of water in the basement. Once a gas line is in place, repairing Bristol’s old and leaky pipes will become not only more time-consuming but hazardous to the entire community. And gas pipes remain in the ground for generations, far beyond target dates for conversion to sustainable energy sources. I chose not to leave that cleanup project to my former students and their children and grandchildren.
Natural gas impacts more than the folks in a particular community where the infrastructure is buried. Purchasing gas heat supports a fuel whose extraction and transport releases methane, a far more damaging greenhouse gas than the carbon dioxide released by oil or coal. The fracking process also involves injecting huge quantities of chemically treated water and sand into a drilled well to break through shale deposits and allow the gas to surface. As a result, drinking water and aquatic environments in entire river basins have been contaminated, harming and displacing habitats and humans near fracking sites. Fracking wells leak and scar the land, and cleanup is likewise left to future generations.
Fracked gas currently seems like the most affordable route. However, price comparison charts neglect to point out the considerable cost of converting to gas and the fact that monthly fees continue throughout the summer. Perpetuating use of a potent fossil fuel epitomizes the old expression “penny wise and pound foolish.” There are better choices within our grasp.
Our household chooses to cut back on our carbon footprint while economizing. We reduced our fuel usage by sealing our doors and windows, closing off unused spaces and keeping cold air out of our entryway. When I shed my coat and shoes at the door I don a sweater and slippers and envision Mr. Rogers, then set the thermostat at 65. After a detailed $100 energy audit we learned we could further reduce our fuel consumption by 38 percent with more extensive insulation of our old basement and by investing in high-efficiency electricity-powered heat pumps.
We lowered our electric bill by 10-15 percent annually by renting a share in Sun Common’s community solar array. A $76 monthly fee covers our needs over half the year. We also keep our eyes on the latest renewable energy technologies, which will get better and cheaper as fossil fuels rise in cost due to their limited supply and the price — both environmental and economic — of extraction and delivery.
There are green solutions for large-scale situations as well. Two Mount Abe students solved the heat challenge by lobbying successfully for the locally sourced wood chip boiler that now heats their building, saving taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars each year. Middlebury College students, faculty and staff collaborated to achieve carbon neutrality through biomass gasification (a fascinating technology — check it out online), a 10-kilowatt wind turbine and a 1.5-acre solar farm.
California, overrun with wildfires, set the ambitious goal of reducing its carbon emissions by 40 percent from its 1990 levels by 2030. They followed with a sophisticated, ambitious program that’s already reduced industry emissions by 4 percent since its inception in 2013. Meanwhile, Vermont has increased emissions by 16 percent since 1990. With the average American’s carbon footprint five times the international average, local decisions make a difference. We can and must do better.
Democracy involves access to choices, yet this right includes a responsibility to those affected by our actions. We may not see these consequences directly, but that does not negate them. In 2018, mining and distributing fracked gas through buried pipelines is not a responsible option.
Alice Leeds of Bristol was a public school teacher for 25 years and is currently a writing instructor at the Community College of Vermont in Winooski.

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