This week, President of the College Ronald D. Liebowitz released a statement reiterating the College’s support for the Vermont Gas pipeline. This comes in the face of motivated and organized student and community opposition that has made its presence well known over the last few weeks. This decision repudiates the state’s ban on hydraulic fracturing by supporting a pipeline that will carry natural gas produced by the process across Vermont. It is also the right thing to do; it is the right thing for Middlebury College, the town of Middlebury and the state of Vermont.
I could spend pages debating the merits of fracking. It has become a dirty word within the environmental movement, and it is an undeniable fact that fracking has an environmental impact. Yet the severity of that impact has been overstated. Natural gas has replaced coal as the go-to method of electrical generation in the United States. This is a step forward; natural gas contains half the carbon dioxide and none of the particulate emissions of coal. Natural gas extraction, through hydraulic fracturing or any other means, has less of an impact on the landscape than the strip mining and mountaintop removal used to produce coal.
In this case, the gas delivered by the pipeline would mainly replace the fuel oil and propane that Vermont residents use to heat their homes. The process of producing either of these is no less fraught with pollution and environmental degradation than fracking. Propane is a byproduct of — surprise — natural gas or petroleum refining. Fuel oil is a similar, dirty leftover of this process. As conventional sources of oil disappear, oil companies increasingly turn to oil sand and oil shale. I don’t need to sell anybody at Middlebury on the harms of oil sand extraction, and oil from shale is produced by a mechanism similar to fracking for natural gas. Whether or not Addison County allows the pipeline, then, its residents will rely on the byproducts of the technological achievement that is fuel extraction through hydraulic fracturing.
The construction of the pipeline will give more than 3,000 area homeowners and a number of local businesses the option to select a fuel that is both cleaner and cheaper. At current prices, a homeowner who switches from fuel oil or propane would save between $1,300 and $1,400 per year. In a county where the median household income is $57,000 per year, this represents a two percent total savings — a difference that only gets greater when considered for those with lower income. At its heart, this is not an environmental issue, but an issue of poverty and economic opportunity. Eleven percent of Addison County residents live below the poverty line. For these residents, a difference of more than $1,000 is a huge quality of life improvement. It means car repairs, more food on the table or summer camp for their kids. It means more money in the pockets of local businesses and lower costs for local schools. Even if the price of natural gas were to suddenly jump, it’s likely that fuels like propane and fuel oil would follow and price savings would remain substantial.
The pipeline is also an issue of economic development. Those savings for an average household will scale up many times for businesses like Cabot, Porter Hospital or Otter Creek Brewery in Middlebury. Lower heating costs for them mean higher wages for their employees or can mean more room in the budget for new hires. When we oppose projects like this, we effectively draw a fence around the area for businesses looking to move in.
I’m sympathetic to the plight of property owners who do not want to see the pipeline run by their houses. It is important that Vermont Gas take steps to reduce the risk and disturbance they will face in its construction and operation. The town of Cornwall, for example, is considering an ordinance that requires the pipeline to pass 300 feet from any structure of high consequence to avoid the extremely minimal but present risk of an explosion. Any other negative impact from the project will be temporary; once built, the pipeline will run three to five feet underground, and farmers will be able to grow crops on top of it.
The pipeline will bring biomethane to the College to satisfy its carbon neutrality pledge and cheaper, cleaner fuel to customers throughout Addison County. Vermont State Government’s vote to ban hydraulic fracturing was nothing more than a symbolic measure; there are no natural gas reserves in the state and no danger of fracking nearby. We should not turn down the possibilities the pipeline brings over a symbolic quibble over the origin of the product it will carry.