Op/Ed

Climate Matters: Vermonters must act today with tomorrow in mind

ROSS CONRAD

26th in a series

In June the Middlebury selectboard approved a free right-of-way easement for Canadian-owned Vermont Gas Systems (VGS) to build new fossil fuel infrastructure downtown on Mill Street. This despite the various fossil fuel reduction goals and efforts Middlebury has adopted to help the state meets its greenhouse gas (GHG) emission targets. Common sense says that if we are serious about reducing our GHG emissions and transitioning away from fossil fuels, halting installation of new fossil fuel infrastructure is an appropriate place to start.

I concede that in some limited instances the use of the fracked methane gas delivered by VGS may be the best or even the only way for a property owner to accomplish a goal. Unfortunately, the selectboard made no effort to find out what alternatives to Vermont Gas were considered in this instance and why they may have been rejected in favor of gas.

I contacted the owners of the Stone Mill where the proposed gas line is being planned and found that while they did give consideration to the use of less environmentally harmful alternatives, they seem to be under the impression that gas is more environmentally friendly than fuel oil. The reality is that numerous published peer-reviewed studies have found that methane, the primary component of natural gas, is over 80 times as potent a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide within the first 20 years of its release. The large amounts of methane that leaks from gas wells, pipelines and from home appliances means that in most instances natural gas is more harmful than coal or oil.

VGS tries to divert attention from its dirty fuel by highlighting renewable natural gas (RNG) projects they sponsor at dairy farms, landfills and wastewater treatment plants. The fact is that the amount of RNG that Vermont Gas generates is about 1% of the total gas it delivers. There is not enough waste manure and effluent in the entire state to ever be able to begin to replace the dirty fracked methane that is normally delivered through VGS pipelines.

In approving the VGS easement, the selectboard did not negotiate any compensation in return for the conveyance of a right of way across town property that VGS plans to profit from in perpetuity. When VGS wants to install its pipelines across private property, they offer to compensate the property owner accordingly. The town of Middlebury receives no such courtesy. This results in a situation where Middlebury taxpayers are subsidizing VGS business activity.

Our town is divided over VGS. Some folks are all for Vermont Gas and want no limits on its business activity, while others are totally opposed and would like to have never seen VGS come to Middlebury in the first place. I propose a compromise that honors both sides of this issue. Before approving all new right-of-way easement requests from VGS the selectboard should confirm that fracked methane gas is indeed the best option for the property owner by reviewing what renewable energy options were considered and why they were rejected.

In cases where the use of gas is found to be appropriate, the selectboard ought to require VGS to pay the fair market value for rights of way on town property. These funds could then be used to help the town pay for its various fossil fuel reduction and transition efforts. It’s only fair that the companies responsible for pollution are required to help pay the cost of dealing with the problems the pollution causes.

In an effort to foster a town-wide discussion on this issue, and convince the selectboard to stop rubber-stamping VGS easement requests, a petition is being circulated to require the selectboard to put the question of whether to grant this easement on the ballot in November. This way Middlebury voters will decide whether to allow VGS to use town-owned land for the build-out of new fossil fuel infrastructure free of charge.

In addition, I am making a commitment to the residents of Middlebury: In the future, whenever the selectboard approves an easement request from VGS without receiving compensation for use of town land, and without confirming that gas is in fact the best and most appropriate fuel source for the intended use, I will circulate a petition to put the question on the ballot so the voters can have the final say.

It’s time we changed the sheets on the deathbed of the fossil fuel industry. To paraphrase New Haven beekeeper Kirk Webster: The old ways of doing things are dying and a new way is struggling to be born. Are you going to attend the funeral or the birth? They’re both happening at the same time, so you have to choose.

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Middlebury beekeeper Ross Conrad is a founding member of the Middlebury Energy Committee and serves on the Addison County Regional Planning Commission Energy Committee.

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