Editor’s note: Charlotte resident Rebecca Foster is a member of the town’s energy committee and writes the column Carpe Greenum for The Citizen, a weekly newspaper for Charlotte and Hinesburg.
Before the public hearing on May 7 in Shoreham concerning the proposed International Paper pipeline through Vermont, a longtime activist recommended that people testify about the wetlands, the agricultural soil, the rocks that would be blasted during construction, and so forth. Such things are included in the criteria the Vermont Public Service Board (PSB) uses to determine whether or not to issue a permit for the project.
It was pretty clear at the standing-room-only hearing that people didn’t want to talk about rocks. Evidently, when Vermonters think about building expensive and long-lasting infrastructure for fossil fuels in some of the most beautiful agricultural land in the state, they want to talk about climate change, how Vermont is being sold to out-of-state multinational corporations, or the danger of fracking in Alberta, Canada, whence comes the gas.
They want to point out that a pipeline is unnecessary, that we have alternatives right now right here that serve the dual purpose of reducing our energy needs and building the local economy. They are outraged that they are bearing the costs and risks while receiving none of the benefits. (The first round of discovery in the current phase of the pipeline under consideration revealed that 99 to 99.5 percent of the fuel in the pipeline would go to International Paper in New York.)
Out of the speakers presenting testimony in Shoreham, 74 percent were opposed to the International Paper pipeline. They talked about their fields, their grandchildren, their houses, their lake, their self-determination — all the things that they love and that they are trying to prevent from destruction.
I’m guessing it’s a fair generalization that people who bother to get educated enough to go to a public hearing — any public hearing — are no fools. In this case, they knew that the PSB expected them to talk about rocks. But if a public hearing is to be authentic, not just for show, then any topic related to the proposed plan should be embraced by the PSB, not just those that conform to the narrow PSB criteria.
The costs of the International Paper pipeline are so high to Vermonters that they deserve the respect, to say nothing of the tool, of transparency.
The people in Shoreham were, collectively and in effect, telling the PSB that the framework it is using to evaluate the gas company’s proposal is as outmoded as fossil fuels themselves. A year ago, even I was saying that climate change was in the future. Now, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says it’s here. Coincidentally, the day before the hearing our own government issued a massive report detailing the ways in which it is proven that climate change is present in the U.S.
The old way of thinking no longer suffices. A sharp mind at some point in the three hours of testimony described laying down more fossil fuel infrastructure precisely at the moment in history when we should be stopping all of its use as baffling, linear thinking. We now live in a non-linear, unpredictable world. We don’t know all that is coming, but we do know the future is less reliable and we need to be flexible. Likewise, the PSB needs to be flexible, too.
Revealingly, just as the public is crying out for the PSB to be more inclusive, Vermont Gas Systems is urging the PSB to seal case documents from public view. The decision is pending. Should International Paper, for instance, cite confidentiality over its financial information, it would be difficult for the public to refute the multi-billion-dollar company’s cry that it would shut down the plant if it doesn’t get gas. Any such “protected” information could not be used in future litigation, either. The Vermont Public Service Department — which is supposed to champion the cause of the Vermont public — is the agency pushing the deal to keep the public in the dark. The costs of the International Paper pipeline are so high to Vermonters that they deserve the respect, to say nothing of the tool, of transparency. The PSB should decline the VGS request to withhold documents from the public.
The Vermont neighbors who spoke at the hearing last week are not professional activists. The majority, judging by hairlines and color, were over 50. They did not wake up one morning itching to pick a fight with two multi-billion-dollar multinational corporations. But they presented testimony as full of research as it was of passion, rich with incisive thinking and sincerity.
“For 30 years I was a family physician in Middlebury, and I would like to think that I am of at least average intelligence,” said Bill Fifield in one of my favorite testimonies. “Folks, I just don’t get it,” he admitted. “I just don’t understand why this board would even consider approval of a project that would put the short-term wellbeing of corporate profits above the future well-being of the next generations of Vermonters, to say nothing of the future of our planet.”
The PSB can act short-term and secretly if it wishes. It could, however, take this historic opportunity to listen to the voices of the public, be completely transparent, act bravely against convention, and deny a permit for the International Paper pipeline.