The Rise of Vermont's Fracked Gas Battle: Communities Organize Against Pipeline Plans
Nate and Jane Palmer's farm sits in a clay plain basin adjacent to one of the many wetlands in Monkton, a rural Vermont community known for, among other things, its annual salamander migrations and amphibian road crossings. In addition to raising animals and growing crops for small-scale biofuel experiments, the couple runs Palmer's Garage, a repair shop and community fixture in nearby North Ferrisburgh.
Jane Palmer recalls the controversy when Vermont Gas first announced its intention to construct a gas pipeline down the western side of the state, a route which would require a right-of-way through the center of Monkton. "We thought it was a dumb idea that would undermine alternative energy efforts," she says.
But it wasn't until a neighbor stopped by in late January 2013 with maps showing the pipeline running through their fields and 150 feet from their house that the Palmers began to really pay attention. Shortly thereafter, an agent from the gas company called the house, seeking permission to survey their land for the pipeline. The Palmers refused, stating they had no intention of allowing a gas pipeline to be built across their land. Nate notes that, "we essentially flipped them the bird from the beginning."
With their gesture, the Palmers joined a growing list of landowners and community members opposed to the largest expansion of Vermont's fossil fuel infrastructure in decades. If built, the proposed Addison-Rutland Natural Gas Project would extend Vermont's gas pipeline grid south into Addison and Rutland counties, with the possibility of further expansions linking up with the US pipeline network in the Albany, New York area.
Community opposition builds
Vermont Gas Systems, a Canadian-owned company with a corporate structure topped by pipeline giant Enbridge and a $186 billion pension fund, first floated the idea of a gas pipeline from Burlington to Rutland back in 2011. But the project rapidly accelerated in the fall of 2012, after the company struck a deal with International Paper (IP) to horizontally drill a pipeline spur under the nation's 6th largest inland water body, Lake Champlain, to IP's aging paper mill in Ticonderoga, NY. Seventy percent of the gas in the pipe would be destined for the paper-mill, with corporate customers on the Vermont side making up for much of the remaining demand.
Vermont Gas quickly found itself raising the ire of landowners in Monkton after surveyors were spotted on a number of properties without permission. Monkton residents, wise from a fight in the early 2000's against a power-line project, canvassed door-to-door and collected Notices Against Trespass, which they delivered to the gas company en masse as a warning and tactic to slow the project.
But the opposition wasn't limited to Monkton. In nearby Hinesburg, residents like Mark Ames confronted Vermont Gas at an informational session, stating, "I'm not interested in having a gas line either through my house, 20 feet in front of my house, behind my house, or through my fields."
A grassroots network of affected community members and local climate activists formed to oppose the pipeline, canvassing across multiple towns before the first public hearing in Hinesburg. Following a colorful rally outside the hearing, dozens of pipeline opponents walked into the crowded auditorium together, singing a reinterpretation of the union classic, "solidarity forever, for the unity keeps us strong."
A few weeks later, when Vermont Gas attempted to unveil its five route options for the Lake Champlain phase of the pipeline, community members from Middlebury interrupted the meeting to great applause, calling for a sixth option: No pipeline, period. As they left the room following the meeting, a group of neighbors were overheard remarking, "that was a bloodbath."
New England's pipeline rush
The Addison-Rutland Natural Gas Project comes amidst a rapid - and increasingly contentious - construction of fossil fuel infrastructure across the continent, driven by high oil prices and new technologies like hydraulic fracturing, (known as fracking) which allow for the extraction of previously inaccessible deposits.
While the North American fracking boom has led to low natural gas prices in many parts of the country, in New England, regional pipeline constraints combined with dependence upon gas for both heating and electricity have led to record high gas prices for the past two winters.
The situation has led to a clamor for new gas pipeline construction, with the six New England governors calling for public funding to encourage up to a billion cubic feet of new gas pipeline capacity, with industry groups concluding that two billion cubic feet of new capacity is needed to maintain business as usual.
In Vermont, however, such plans are an uneasy political sell. In 2012, following a statewide campaign, Governor Peter Shumlin signed the nation's first statewide ban on fracking for oil and gas, stating that, "Human beings have survived for thousands of years without oil or natural gas...[but] we have never known humanity or life on this planet to survive without clean water."
But despite Shumlin's opposition to fracking in Vermont, he's been a vocal proponent of the Addison-Rutland Natural Gas Project, calling fracked gas the "cleaner, greener" alternative to fuel oil and propane, and lauding the economic benefits cheaper gas would bring to businesses in western Vermont.
"The hypocrisy is remarkable," says Avery Pittman, an organizer with the climate justice group Rising Tide Vermont. "It's become abundantly clear that the Governor's rhetoric is just that - rhetoric. His priority is protecting the profits of the biggest companies operating in Vermont."
Pittman adds, "It's even more offensive when you consider the devastating impacts that fossil fuel extraction is having on First Nations and settler communities where the gas is fracked."
The other end of the pipe
When following Vermont's gas infrastructure back to the wellhead through Transcanada's pipeline system, one eventually ends up in Dene and Cree territory, land colonially known as the Canadian province of Alberta.
Alberta sits atop the Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin, and boasts some of the world's richest deposits of fossil fuels. Oil and gas extraction in Alberta has been ongoing for decades, but has accelerated in recent years with the advent of hydraulic fracking, and the monumental extraction of the tar sands. Between 2012 and 2013 alone the number of fracking licenses granted by the province jumped by almost 650%, leading opposition political leaders to declare its approach to fracking an "unregulated free-for-all."
But the rapid expansion is provoking intense resistance across the province. In addition to rural landowners' calls for a fracking moratorium, First Nations like the Athabasca Chipewyan and Beaver Lake Cree have filed lawsuits against the government, charging that their treaty-guaranteed rights to hunt, trap, and fish have been violated by the poisoning of the land due to fossil fuel development. Meanwhile, the Lubicon Lake Nation is fighting to maintain a blockade against fracking operations on their territory, land which has never been ceded to the Canadian government.
Pipeline embattled, but state approves
In Vermont, despite months of door-to-door canvassing, growing support from established environmental groups, and a second public hearing dominated by hundreds of pipeline opponents, the state Public Service Board approved the Colchester-Middlebury leg of the Addison-Rutland Natural Gas Project on December 23, 2013.
Organizers responded with a march on the Burlington offices of Vermont Gas' lawyers, announcing that over 75 people had signed a pledge to engage in direct action should construction begin. "When the state is doing the bidding of the corporations, we have no choice but to build powerful people's movements in our communities and if necessary, intervene in the chain of destruction with our bodies," said Pittman of Rising Tide Vermont.
Since the ruling, however, Vermont Gas has run up against a series of delays and embarrassments, making it clear that the project is far from inevitable. The company is months behind on its timeline to acquire the remaining permits needed before construction begins on the first leg of the pipeline. And the arrests of Vermont Gas subcontractors, who were allegedly producing and using meth while working on a similar pipeline project, have only fueled community concerns about safety and accountability.
Vermont Gas is also coming under fire for its aggressive and preemptive eminent domain practices, with landowner outrage driving state officials to intervene in an attempt to calm the easement negotiations. Maren Vasakta, a landowner from Monkton, said, "Vermont Gas...[has] disregarded our questions, dismissed our safety concerns and bullied us by threatening us with eminent domain when they don't even have [all the] permits to construct the project."
Communities take a stand
The entire pipeline project was dealt a major blow on March 4, 2014, when three affected communities passed Town Meeting Day resolutions opposing the pipeline.
Joining the town of Monkton, whose residents voted to "denounce" the project, were two of the three communities impacted by the Lake Champlain leg of the pipeline, leading many observers to question the political viability of the pipeline segment leading to the International Paper mill in New York.
"Vermont Gas has said the last thing they want to do is put a pipeline where people don't want it. Well, the message is clear -- Cornwall doesn't want it," said Mary Martin, an affected landowner and resident of the town of Cornwall, which voted 126 to 16 against the pipeline.
Following the Town Meeting Day results, the coalition of groups opposed to the pipeline renewed their call for the immediate cancellation of the project, noting that Vermont Gas is still negotiating easements and awaiting permits before it can begin construction on the first phase. And should construction begin, Vermont Gas will likely face the challenge of a growing statewide movement intent on preventing the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure.
Jane Palmer warns, "As long as the Shumlin administration keeps ignoring the fact that...Vermont Gas is not treating homeowners with dignity and respect, and that many of us object to the build-out of fossil fuel infrastructure as immoral and insane, this obscene land grab will not go smoothly."
[Keith Brunner is an organizer and educator based in Burlington, Vermont. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org]