Over 1,200 sign pipeline petition

By Emily Singer

In one week, a student-created online petition to persuade the College to retract its statement of support for the proposed Addison County Natural Gas Pipeline garnered over 1,000 signatures. The student group, led by Cailey Cron ’13.5, Anna Shireman-Grabowski ’15.5 and others, aims to reach 1,500 signatures before officially submitting the petition to the administration.

The Addison County Natural Gas Pipeline is part of a proposed expansion of an existing Vermont Gas Systems pipeline, which currently operates 750 miles of underground pipeline, serving Chittenden and Franklin counties. The proposed 41-mile-long expansion will allow the towns of Middlebury and Vergennes to gain access to natural gas. The pipeline will ultimately terminate at the International Paper Mill in Ticonderoga, N.Y., located less than half a mile from the Vermont border.

The gas in the pipeline will come primarily from fracking efforts by Gaz Metro in Alberta, Canada, ultimately using the state of Vermont as a conduit to transport natural gas to the Ticonderoga factory while providing gas to a handful of towns in Vermont along the way. The state of Vermont banned fracking in 2012.

In 2010, the College chose to support the project to aid with its plan to achieve carbon neutrality by 2016. If the pipeline is constructed, the College will gain access to bio-methane sources that can be stored and held within the pipeline. When heating buildings, the College first utilizes its bio-methane sources due to the difficulty in storing it.

In a 2011 letter to Governor of Vermont Peter Shumlin, President of the College Ronald D. Liebowitz expressed his support for the pipeline, citing lower energy costs and fewer carbon emissions among the project’s benefits. Liebowitz also cited a project in Addison County for the creation of more farm-based bio-methane production plants as an idea that could become a reality if the pipeline were to be created.

“Farmers would be able to pump their pipeline-ready renewable natural gas directly into the pipeline,” wrote Liebowitz. “This would give a significant boost to these small bio-methane projects, eliminating the need for storage tanks and gas trucks and enabling the creation of a new, sustainable, farm-based industry in Vermont.”

Though contacted for this article, Liebowitz did not respond to a request for comment before press time.

In 2010, Integrated Energy Solutions, a Montpelier-based company, proposed that the College could gain access to bio-methane from the Goodrich Farm facility in Salisbury by way of the pipeline, which would also offer a convenient way to store the gas.

“We looked at the option of storing the [bio-methane] underground and it was just so expensive that it made the project undoable,” said Director of Sustainability Integration Jack Byrne. “The pipeline provides a storage solution. He [the owner of the plant] can put his gas in the pipeline and then we can take gas from the pipeline.

“We won’t necessarily be taking all his gas, because it’s going to be all mixed in with all that’s in there, but we’ll basically be owning the gas that he’s producing and we’ll be able to take out an equivalent amount.”

Gaining access to bio-methane would allow the College to cut down on one million gallons of fuel, moving one step closer to achieving carbon neutrality. The College also uses biomass as a means of reducing fuel dependency, burning 20,000 tons of locally sourced woodchips in lieu of one million gallons of fuel.

While the pipeline would certainly ensure that the College meets its carbon neutrality goals, students and professors have expressed concern about its effect on relationships with the town. While a number of local land and business owners are in favor of the pipeline for the economic benefits that it would provide, the opposition has been much more vocal.

“There’s definitely a town-gown relation piece, just in that the College has a pretty rare opportunity to advocate for the community because we’ve been given intervenor status,” Cron said, referring to Vermont Gas having granted the College permission to join and participate in ongoing litigation and debates without extra permission.

“My take on it is that regardless of whether the pipeline goes through or not, if the College doesn’t retract its support, we’re going to lose the support of our community. We’re here for four years and this community welcomes us and I think the institution, and we as student owe it to our community to ensure that their voices are heard and we in this instance have the megaphone and they don’t.”

Organizations applied to receive intervenor status through Vermont Gas directly, and thus the corporation was able to hand-select the arguments that they believed to be strongest.

“The College is uniquely positioned to really come out as a strong advocate for community concerns … because there aren’t a lot of people in the process right now who have been given that kind of access,” she said.

Students in opposition to the pipeline have argued that the process by which natural gas will be harvested and the process by which the pipeline will be built are not in line with the College’s environmentally-friendly position, most notably the fact that the majority of the pipeline’s gas will come from fracking.

“I’d love to see this as an entry point to a conversation for the College to expand upon carbon neutrality,” said Shireman-Grabowski. “We made this carbon neutrality statement several years ago in good faith, [and] now we’re going to expand that to look at how we really use energy on campus to really bend the arc toward a much more conservative use of energy.”

“Ultimately, if this is how we have to do carbon neutrality, then carbon neutrality becomes more about looking good rather than doing good,” she added.

Demonstrations in opposition of the pipeline have been ongoing, which Byrne believes to be in character with all that Vermont stands for, and will ultimately lead to a better decision regarding the construction of the pipeline.

“I’ve seen over and over again that a strong opposition to environmental issues has been a really healthy reaction because it has forced people to really think hard about how to do the thing that is best from an environmental and sustainability perspective,” he said. “I think it’s going to force people to think about things that they wouldn’t otherwise consider.”

The construction of the pipeline was not originally incorporated into the College’s carbon neutrality plan, but rather the proposed biomethane access serves as a convenient and unforeseen method of achieving carbon neutrality. If the pipeline is not constructed, Byrne said that the College would have to go back to the drawing board.