The current debate about the potential expansion of a natural gas pipeline through Vermont to Ticonderoga, N.Y. highlights a seemingly rare instance of conflict between the surrounding community and the College. While the state of Vermont has banned fracking and public opposition to the construction of the pipeline — which would bring fracked natural gas through the state from Canada — continues to build, the College maintains its support for the project. Its main reason for doing so is that the pipeline would help ensure completion of its pledge to become 100 percent carbon neutral by 2016. Thus, this debate raises important questions about the responsibilities of the College, not only as an educational institution, but also as an integral part of a larger Middlebury community and a representative of the state of Vermont.
On a variety of issues, including those involving environmental sustainability, the College, the town of Middlebury and the state of Vermont have taken similar positions. Both have worked hard in recent years to expand access to local foods, for example, and to strengthen the connection between local farms and the College’s dining services. Indeed, in many ways, those inside and outside of Vermont view the College as representative of these shared values. With historical ties dating back to our founding in 1800, the College has always been — and will continue to be — connected to the surrounding community in meaningful ways.
Although there has been clear overlap in the general interests and values among these entities, the proposed pipeline represents a significant break in this pattern, one that may force the school to defend a position that is economically convenient but environmentally and ethically problematic.
Underlying this conflict are important differences that distinguish the town and the College. Perhaps most obvious is the fact that while students are here for a mere four years, many community members are life-long residents of Middlebury and are more affected in the long-term by projects such as the pipeline. Certainly, with over 60 percent of Middlebury students participating in some form of community service, it is hard to argue that students do not give back to the surrounding area in positive ways. Yet it is apparent that they do not face the same concerns as local residents when it comes to the pipeline, which would deliver natural gas to residents in Middlebury and Vergennes. For example, some community members opposing construction for environmental reasons cite potential detrimental effects on local farmland and residential properties. A less vocal group that supports the pipeline points to the fact that natural gas is a cleaner-burning, lower-emitting fuel compared to home heating oil; additionally, they tout the potential economic benefits of a cheaper energy alternative. Still, others may be removed from the debate entirely, predicting that the pipeline’s construction would have little impact on their lives or that their opinions have little impact on the construction.
Like Middlebury residents, the College itself is affected by the pipeline’s construction in the long term. While the College may be conscious of the concerns of local residents and public sentiment across the state, it has its own interests distinct from those of Vermonters. Most notably, the College is under pressure to meet its goal of carbon neutrality by 2016 and the pipeline represents a unique opportunity to do so. In brief, the natural gas pipeline would help the College meet its goal by allowing it to purchase climate-benefitting fuel from a local farm. The proposal involves construction of an on-farm methane digestor, a system which would feed methane produced naturally by animal waste into the pipeline, which the College would then purchase as heating fuel through Vermont Gas. Such a method, however, has produced a great deal of controversy among environmentalists on campus and in the surrounding community.
Completing our pledge to become 100 percent carbon neutral by 2016 by supporting the construction of a multi-million dollar fracked natural gas pipeline, one opposed by many Vermonters on environmental grounds, is problematic. Meeting our goal in this way suggests that despite the genuine efforts of students seeking to translate the College’s commitment to the environment into meaningful action, carbon neutrality has become a marketing tool. Some may rightly argue that to value the stated 2016 deadline over the sanctity of the process itself is to prioritize ends over means. Would it not be better to delay the deadline and meet our goal in more environmentally sound ways? What is the value of reaching the goal if its path is riddled with shortcuts?
At the same time, being a relatively new, self-defined concept, carbon neutrality constitutes a somewhat grey area. As a leader on this front, the College faces the challenge of setting and meeting its goal in seemingly unchartered territory, as has been evident since the declaration of this goal. For example, the College currently does not include athletic travel in its calculations of carbon emissions. The College should be granted some flexibility to alter and improve its methods as the field continues to evolve.
At the end of the day, we must remember that the only people truly holding the administration accountable to its pledged commitment to carbon neutrality are members of the college community. We define this notion on our own terms and owe it to ourselves to ensure that the process aligns with our values. We hope that the College will continue to examine this topic, considering the arguments on all sides of the issue and recognizing the effects of its actions on others. Ultimately, the pipeline presents an opportunity to ask ourselves not merely what carbon neutrality means in a technical sense, but what it means in relation to our ethical commitments as an institution of higher learning and our long-standing relationship with the town of Middlebury and state of Vermont.