In Which I Get Public Fan Mail

A pair of Middlebury students – Anna Shireman-Grabowski ‘15.5 and Cailey Cron ‘13.5 – took the time this week to write a personal letter attempting to refute my analysis of the VT Gas pipeline project in the pages of The Campus. While I appreciate the gesture, they missed the larger point of my piece: that the pipeline will help real people and that benefits of this pipeline are greater than the cost. Unfortunately, they mostly ignored these larger issues and spent much of their piece instead accusing me of journalistic malpractice. The great thing about having a blog is that I can go through their letter point-by-point and defend myself while pointing out the serious holes in their logic. So get comfortable; here we go:

We wish to address serious factual inaccuracies in Zach Drennen’s April 25 column “Middlebury Finds a New Pipeline to Protest.” First, a clarification of terms: Zach, you mislead readers by describing the product transported by this pipeline as “natural gas.” Conventionally drilled natural gas is not without its own problems, but fracked gas, which this pipeline will carry, poses even more serious concerns.

I do not mislead my readers because the pipeline will, in fact carry natural gas. They’re taking a calculated gamble here by pretending that they support real natural gas but are most concerned about fracking – and that you will be too. But here’s why you shouldn’t: fracking is not nearly as bad as innacurate but powerful portrayals like Josh Fox’s Gasland might lead you to believe. And even if you do believe Fox’s perspective, it’s better than the mountain top removal used for coal mining, and the final product is both cleaner and cheaper than coal.

You claim the “natural” gas that this pipeline will carry is safer and more environmentally friendly than oil. Fracked gas, however, is extracted by shooting 596 known chemicals — carcinogens included — into the ground. Companies that use fracking techniques are exempt from the Clean Air and Water Acts, meaning that the millions of gallons of toxic wastewater that they produce can flow back into water supplies unregulated.

Yes, fracking could use more regulation. Yes, companies should have to reveal the chemical compounds that they use. No, they should not be exempt from the Clean Air and Water Acts. But all of the natural gas carried by the pipeline will come from Canada, so its extraction is regulated by Canadian law. So tightening US regulations here would have literally zero impact. And this point is both irrelevant and (my turn to throw this out) misleading.

According to the maps included in Vermont Gas’s petition to the Public Service Board, only two towns, Middlebury and Vergennes, are slated for gas distribution for home and business use.

This is pretty easily disproven by a look at the FAQ page for the project:

For Phase I, we plan to serve portions of the following towns on the following schedule:

  • Middlebury Industrial Park — 2014
  • Middlebury — 2015
  • Vergennes — 2015
  • Bristol – 2016
  • New Haven – 2016
  • Monkton — 2016
  • St. George — 2017

For Phase II, we expect to be able to serve local town centers along the transmission route in the 2017 timeframe depending on the transmission line routing.

How’s that for good old-fashioned journalism? Moving on:

Even within these towns, Vermont Gas has not been forthcoming about how close residences and businesses must be to the pipeline in order to receive access, and who would cover the considerable expense of connecting to it.

According to Addison County Representative Paul Raulston, “they [VT Gas] have said publicly that if a structure is within 100 feet of the pipeline, or is a larger user (e.g. heat, hot water, cooking with gas), there is no cost for the consumer to hook up.” Here’s a map that shows part of the planned local distribution network for the town of Middlebury, for example:

DistributionMapThere are publicly available maps that show the whole initially-planned network, by the way.

As for those further away, who would Shireman-Grabowski and Cron recommend foot the bill? Hopefully not the taxpayers. Given the savings at play here this will be a worthwhile investment, whoever pays.

In addition, Vermont Gas’s purported cost savings for this limited number of potential customers is based on one report from November 2012 when gas prices were near historic post-2008 recession lows. A more recent copy of the same fuel price report indicated a 28 percent increase in gas prices since that time, and a projected 40 percent increase within the next two years.

It’s easy to make it look like natural gas will get crazy expensive because right now it’s crazy cheap. In November 2012, the price was $3.77 per thousand cubic feet. It’s currently $4.37. That represents a 16 percent increase (not 28), but also shows that the supposed 40 percent price increase from November would still leave the price at $5.28. This is a project that could save $200 million for Addison County over the next twenty years. It seems reasonable that propane and fuel oil costs would also rise over that period. But even if they remain the same and gas prices were to double, it would still save $100 million. 

Considering that residential distribution would not begin until at least 2017, it is difficult to believe that customers’ savings would be substantial, certainly not large enough to offset the $66.6 million that Vermont ratepayers will be responsible for contributing to the project.

False, for the reasons listed above. And it’s worth noting here that at current price ratios, the average customer switching from fuel oil would save around $1,300 per year while one switching from propane would save about $1,400 per year.

The inaccuracies in your article make it clear that you have not spoken with community members, many of whom have done extensive research on this project. If you had attended even one hearing, town forum or community meeting, or if you had read the numerous op-eds in the Addison Independent, you would reconsider your claim that “the benefits of this project far and away exceed the costs.” As your opinion does not reflect any of those expressed by community members in public forums, we wonder which Vermont homeowners you think you are speaking for.

This is where it gets condescending. But the arguments I’ve already made show pretty clearly why I do not need to reconsider my claim. And while I had not, at the time of publication, spoken to community members about the project – it was economic analysis, not narrative journalism – I have since spoken with Middlebury College President Ron Liebowitz, Vice President for Finance Patrick Norton, Addison County Representative Paul Raulston, Addison County Regional Planning Board Executive Director Adam Lougee, Middlebury College Sustainability Coordinator Jack Byrne, Middlebury College Professor and town resident Jon Isham, and Steve Wark of Vermont Gas (Also, Roman, the one of the bartenders at Two Brothers Tavern). No doubt you will claim “institutional bias” from these people. But the types of people who show up at community meetings or the “community pipeline opposition meeting” that you invite me to attend are going to be self-selecting. People who are happy with the status quo do not, as a rule, show up to these meetings to make this known. The meetings are long, boring, and full of people yelling (case in point) and they often have more pressing concerns.

As for who I think I am speaking for, I am the Lorax – I speak for the trees. You?

We wish also to dispel the notion that we are anti-pipeline just for the sake of being anti-something. We agree that inaction is not an option; Vermonters need access to cheaper energy, and we see the need for an energy transition as an opportunity to benefit the local economy. Instead of spending $66.6 million to fund a pipeline that will create an estimated 20 out-of-state jobs, we could demand that Vermont Gas — the leading provider of weatherization services in the state — invest a similar amount in weatherizing local homes and businesses, which would create hundreds of in-state jobs and provide guaranteed cost savings over the short and long terms.

I don’t see why these need to be mutually exclusive. I believe that Vermont should commit resources to home weatherization, either through direct spending or a loans program. Either would be a good thing. But the way a market economy works is not that we “demand” that a company invest in weatherization. They’re privately owned, not owned by the state. Also, this is not a jobs issue. Its an issue of saving money for homeowners and businesses that need it.

The points that Shireman-Grabowsi and Cron raise in their letter are almost identical to those that they mentioned in the hour that I sat down with them last weekend. That is unfortunate because it means that I either failed to address their points at all or they failed to listen. I had hoped that we would have a substantive discussion on the larger issues at play here. Sadly, the pair seem more interested in latching onto word choice and accusing me of lazy, misleading journalism than in engaging in a discussion of the actual issue at hand. This, of course, proves correct my point that this movement works with a zeal more common to religious movements than through the practical weighing of costs necessary for policy making. Either way, I’m more than willing to double down on my previous claim that the benefits of this project far exceed any costs.

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One thought on “In Which I Get Public Fan Mail

  1. I’m happy to see someone take the contrarian view, especially if they’re well-informed. A lot of people anti-anything should think about the other side a little more — it’s a good exercise in really understanding their own position.

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