Protesters descended on the offices of the Vermont Department of Public Service on Monday to oppose a natural gas pipeline expansion into Addison County. Advocates say the state has made it difficult for ordinary citizens to participate in the permitting process for the Vermont Gas Systems project.
A grassroots group called Rising Tide Vermont organized the protest against the proposed 41.2-mile pipeline expansion from Hinesburg to Rutland.
The Public Service Department supports the project.
“This pipeline will be locking our communities into a continued dependence on fossil fuels,” said protester Avery Pittman, 23, of Vergennes. She and the group of roughly 20 marched up to the third floor of the red brick building at 112 State St.
Anna Shireman-Grabowski, a student at Middlebury College, led the group in song, chanting “Solidarity forever for unity makes us strong,” in the stairway of the office building. Shireman-Grabowski requested a meeting on the spot with department Commissioner Chris Recchia, who later said he was on the fifth floor of the Pavilion building at the time.
Deputy Commissioner Darren Springer, department attorney for the project Louise Porter, and Recchia’s executive assistant Michelle Hughes filed into the hallway to meet with the protesters.
Shireman-Grabowski read aloud the protesters’ six demands (which can all be viewed in the document below) and a statement intended for Recchia.
“We stand here today to say no more fossil fuel infrastructure, and we demand a participatory process that is accountable to the people of Vermont today and the future generations of tomorrow,” Shireman-Grabowski said, before the group offered Springer an ultimatum between accepting the group’s demands or taking a paper mache rubber stamp, indicating what they say is the department’s blind compliance with the project.
“I’d be happy to accept the demands,” Springer said. “We’ll be happy to review them.”
The backstory, the department and the demands
Members of Rising Tide Vermont formed an ad-hoc group called Vermont Intergenerational Stewards to intervene in the Public Service Board’s permitting process for the gas expansion project. The board denied the group’s application to intervene, but approved more than 30 other parties.
“The Public Service Board process is not participatory, and it’s not accessible,” Pittman said. “You have to have enormous financial and human resources to intervene. Now, our only recourse is the Department of Public Service, which ostensibly represents the people of Vermont. But the testimony they submitted on June 14 is a complete rubber stamp of this project.”
Protesters took aim at testimony from Walter Poor, an economic analyst at the department, who said the project is in the interest of the state.
In his testimony, Poor said, “It is unclear whether the Project would reduce life cycle greenhouse gas emissions relative to the fuels it might replace,” but he added that “it is not clear that a full life cycle analysis completed by VGS or another entity at this time would be useful.”
A life cycle analysis of natural gas would include all of the processes from extraction through distribution, not just the burning segment of the equation. The group demands that the department run such an analysis.
Recchia expressed reservations.
“It needs to take into account not just the life cycle of gas, but also of propane and fuel oil,” Recchia said in an interview. “We’re working with ANR to evaluate what that would get us. We’re not committed to do that because we’re still evaluating how to best do that and whether it would yield dynamics that would change the direction of the project.”
The Conservation Law Foundation conducted an analysis, which found that the project would increase greenhouse gas emissions.
The protesters also take issue with Poor’s finding that “the Addison Natural Gas Project is consistent with the Comprehensive Energy Plan,” which sets the state goal of drawing 90 percent of the Vermont’s energy from renewable sources by 2050.
“We demand that this statement be retracted,” Shireman-Grabowski said to the department officials in the hall. “There is no room for new fossil fuel infrastructure in a plan to decrease fossil fuel consumption.”
Recchia disagrees with the protesters allegations.
“In the long term we look at it as an opportunity to provide an outlet for biogas,” he said. “We recognize in our Comprehensive Energy Plan there still would be some nonrenewable resources, and gas is a much cleaner option than other fuels available to us.”
Recchia said that all in all, the state would benefit from the VTGas proposal.
“We think the advantages outweigh the disadvantages,” he said. “What we see is an opportunity to give consumers a choice as to what heating fuel they wish to use, and we think choice is a good thing. We also think with Vermont Gas being a regulated utility will bring efficiency programs with it, and that’s helpful.”
“Clearly it’s cleaner for Vermont,” he continued. “We’re using number 2 and number 6 fuel oil to heat homes.”