“Am I ready to risk arrest today?” I asked myself as my husband and I took part in a nonviolent direct action near Geprags Park in Hinesburg on Oct. 20, which involved some 200 people occupying a construction site of Vermont Gas Systems (VGS), a Canadian company that is in the process of extending its gas pipeline from Burlington to Middlebury.
Grassroots actions like this have occurred over the last several years, ranging from lobbying legislators and state agencies in Montpelier to supporting homeowners whose land was being taken for the pipeline corridor and individual protestors as they obstructed what they considered illegal operations. Thursday’s occupation focused on VGS’s plan to excavate a pipeline trench though the wetland portion of Geprags Park, arguably in direct violation of established environmental regulations and the terms of the will that donated the park land to Hinesburg only for “recreational and educational purposes.” One mantra spoken by many people at the action was, “We are not protestors. We are protectors.”
But my joining the 200 other concerned citizens was more than about protecting one wetland. We were also speaking up for our children’s and grandchildren’s right to a livable planet. We Vermonters can’t take these disturbing developments lying down when we are facing such major decisions about our energy future.
The State of Vermont has agreed on a goal of 90 percent of our electrical needs coming from renewable sources by 2050. That requires a major commitment and investment in renewable-energy infrastructures, such as solar, wind, geothermal, small hydro plants and biogas, as well as major strides in conservation through energy efficiency. It seems contradictory that the state is allowing a huge amount of investment in gas pipeline infrastructure.
Some are promoting natural gas as a “bridge fuel” on the mistaken belief that the emissions from burning the gas, once the infrastructure is in place, will produce less carbon dioxide than burning oil. There are three main problems with this argument.
One is that more capital investment in fossil fuels reduces options for investing in renewable energy.
The second is that our state has banned extraction of natural gas by hydro-fracturing (“fracking”) because of its tendency to contaminate local water resources and divert limited fresh water from other essential uses. Also gas development, storage and transport often entail significant leaks of methane, a greenhouse gas much more powerful than CO2, possibly (according to the April 2012 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) canceling out any benefits of switching from coal or oil to gas. Yet much of the gas that would be flowing through this pipeline comes from gas that is extracted by fracking in Canada.
The third is that pipelines may not be as benign as the gas industry claims. According to an October 17, 2016, press release, a coalition of Vermont groups, including 350 Vermont, Protect Geprags Park, Central Vermont Climate Action, Just Power, Vermonters for a Clean Environment, Upper Valley Affinity Group, Rutland Climate Coalition, and Toxics Action Center, has requested that the Federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration take over Vermont intrastate pipeline monitoring and enforcement, initiate an investigation into whether the Vermont Department of Public Service (DPS) has failed to correct potential noncompliance with minimum construction standards on already installed pipeline segments, and reject DPS’s pending certification under 49 USC 60105.
As people gathered at Geprags Park on Oct. 20, a cool and drizzly day, some were collecting winter items for the thousands of Native American tribal people at Standing Rock, North Dakota, who are prepared to stay through the winter, blocking construction of the “North Dakota Access” oil pipeline by the Enbridge Corporation (which owns a large share of GazMetro, the main distributor of natural gas in Quebec, which in turn owns VGS) because they are convinced that it poses an unacceptable risk to essential local water supplies. We stood in solidarity with those at Standing Rock that day.
Overall the mood at Gepras was serious yet festive. There were numerous talks by those knowledgeable about the many Vermont Public Service Board hearings and about the overall issues regarding the pipeline. There were musicians leading us in song. High school students and grandparents and all ages in between stood together to protect our little part of our beautiful planet.
I came away from that Thursday’s peaceful action, not risking arrest, but in appreciation of those who did and with the sense that a positive outcome had been achieved. Although the pipeline construction moves ahead (way behind schedule and way over budget), the people of Vermont have been given more to think about and more reasons to question the decisions of those in power who are entrusted with their rights and needs.
Ruah Swennerfelt, Charlotte