Rebecca Foster: Speaking their minds, and their hearts

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.

Comments

  1. Steve Comeau :

    Rebecca,

    The transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy will likely take very many decades. Industrial plants use enormous amounts of energy. The paper mill already is using fossil fuels and will need to continue using some type of high energy fuel, one way other another, if it is to remain open.

    In order to transition to renewable energy people will need to use a lot less energy overall. To do that most of will need to drastically change how we live. There is already a huge inequality of energy consumption. I really can’t see much “buy in” to reducing energy use, especially while others squander the energy supply. We are used to having access to energy for everything, and the truth is, most people want to keep it that way.

    Sure, perhaps most of us ask for too much. There is no need to drive so much, fly so much, and consume so much. But that is the way it is. Unwinding the current situation so that it is possible to live well without consuming so much energy will be an endeavor that will take generations.

    Strangely, global climate change is not a compelling reason to make changes. It is too big and too open ended of a problem. It can’t be stopped. It is an abstraction in a way that a pipeline across your property or a wind turbine on a hill nearby is not.

    There needs to be a socially compelling reason to get off fossil fuels and to do the required reducing of energy use that is needed to switch to renewables. That reason is not climate change. That reason is not natural gas obtained from hydraulic fracturing. For now.

    • Jane Palmer :

      Mr Comeau,
      You say, ” There is no need to drive so much, fly so much, and consume so much. But that is the way it is. ”
      What I think Ms Foster is saying in her article is that this can no longer “be the way it is.”

      International Paper is a multi-BILLION dollar company and they are asking people like us to support their efforts to support themselves. They have an energy problem and they are bound and determined to get that energy no matter what the cost to the environment and the communities impacted. They have cleverly disguised the issue to make it seem that those of us that see the folly of this pipeline to be the “bad guys” because if they have to close that plant, it will be because they didn’t get their way through Vermont.
      The reality is, if they decide for whatever reason to close the plant in Ti, it will be tough luck for the little people. IP and other large corporations have certainly done it before. Don’t think for a minute this is to help the region…that is only an aside…this move is to preserve their bottom line.
      I agree that it would be a devastating economic blow to the region if IP did close it’s doors. The smart thing to do would be to plan for that inevitability. Humongous paper plants that belch pollutants into the air and water and produce a product that’s waning in demand are not long for the world anyway.
      Perhaps the reason IP doesn’t want to disclose their financials is just that…they are not on solid financial footing anyway…or perhaps they are economically still viable and this pipeline will not make a difference one way or the other. How can we know if we can’t see the documents?

      And I am curious, what exactly are you referring to by a “socially compelling reason to get off fossil fuels and to do the required reducing of energy use that is needed to switch to renewables.” Would you consider drought, famine, flood, and other disasters to be “socially compelling reasons” ? Have you witnessed the effects of war on a region? All of these disasters will quickly reduce the energy consumption in an area. Perhaps that is what your are referring to ???

      I guess some of us are heeding the warnings and some of us are not.

      • Steve Comeau :

        Jane,
        Drought is an excellent example. The drought in California is causing some areas to declare water use limits, mandatory rationing, and incentives to change to landscaping that does not need water. At some point the idea that there can be limits to resource usage could become accepted, as opposed to being able to use any amount without a limit. Now it is possible the drought is due to climate change, so these changes are because of the affects climate change, but not the idea or fear of climate change.

        Right now people usually get incentives when they use more, such as frequent flyer miles. Can you imagine a time when the frequent flyers will get on the plane last and the occasional traveler would be the one to get the free upgrade to first class? Neither can I. The big consumers usually get the rewards.

        But mostly what I am referring to is that some things become wrong that were once considered right. When excessive consumption of resources is truly considered wrong, then things will change. There is no real social pressure for personal restraint.

    • Alex Prolman :

      Steve, I’m shocked when you say that climate change is not a compelling reason to get off fossil fuels.

      It’s THE reason to get off fossil fuels.

      It’s impossible for me to articulate the immensity of this need in only a few sentences. Climate change kills 5 million people annually, and is anticipated to kill many more in the coming decades. Scientists talk with completely straight faces about the collapse of civilization, because of climate change.

      An apt comparison is tobacco. We are as sure of the link between fossil fuels and climate change as we are of the link between tobacco and cancer. Here’s the link:
      If you smoke lots of tobacco, you’re definitely going to get cancer, and you will likely die a painful death much earlier than you would have otherwise.
      If you burn lots of fossil fuels, you’re definitely going to cook the planet, and your civilization will likely die a painful death much earlier than it would have otherwise.

      I don’t understand how someone can look at that and say, “Meh, that’s not a very good reason to change my ways. Gonna keep doing this for as long as I can.”

      It makes absolutely no sense.

      • Matt Fisken :

        Climate change is THE reason many give for “transitioning to renewable energy.” However it is hardly the best reason for reducing fossil fuel use.

        Fossil fuels’ finite supply, their destructive mining processes and immediate impacts on health/life (particulates, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxides, etc) are all much more pressing than the GHGs the produce, especially when compared to those already in the atmosphere.

        Not to mention, using fewer FFs is simply more economical and rewarding. As much as processed, high calorie foods have contributed to our healthcare crisis and obesity, diabetes, learning disability and drug abuse epidemics, our car-centric culture is equally to blame.

        Unfortunately, I think there are many who drive hundreds of miles a week and fly once a month and believe that supporting farmland coated in silicon and industrial pinwheels on ridge lines gets them off the hook.

        I think the best reason to reduce energy use (including electricity, “renewable” or not) is that soon we won’t have a choice in the matter. While industries will no doubt “spend ‘em while they’ve got ‘em,” as individuals and communities, we can drastically reduce our consumption while INCREASING our well being. That will prepare us for the future, cooled, warmed, dried, or drenched.

        If we want to get serious about mitigating climate change, then we should plant more trees to actually sequester carbon from the atmosphere. Community-based agroforestery would be a much better thing to support than new pipelines, powerplants and transmission lines.

  2. Kim Fried :

    Rebecca you may find another very compelling story in what has transpired in the Towns of Newark, Brighton and the UTG in the northern part of the state. Our experiences with the PSB and the developer were absolute nightmares which we continually live everyday for over the last two years. In our case we are dealing with an Industrial Wind development on our ridgelines that will have a very significant negative impact on our environment and communities for nearly no reduction in CO2. It will make some politicians and investors feel very noble but the citizens will suffer and pay the investors. So welcome to the world of the PSB and I hope you and the citizens that you are working with will “attempt” to get changes to this horribly out dated, political appointed board. You can start by reading the Special Siting Commission’s report that the Govorner, the PSB and legislature ignored.
    I and many others from this part of the state feel your fustrations and only wish you the best.

    • Kathy Nelson :

      Kim, I would add this:

      In 2005 Brighton (Island Pond) was assaulted by a wind developer trying to get a 50 turbine project onto the Seneca ridgeline. Brighton fought the original request for MET towers by claiming that under Section 248 MET towers (to test an area for wind towers) were not generation systems and therefore not qualifying criteria for a CPG. Even though this was a fact, and that the developer does not have to share met tower data, or financial information with the public, the PSB rubber-stamped the MET tower CPG and two MET towers went up in Brighton. The wind project itself failed, but another developer has come in to attack where the first one faltered.
      How can a CPG be issued for a non- generating structure under Section 248? Not even reasonable. So some well paid lobbyists and lawmakers devise a new rule, Section 246 (2007), that is supposed to expedite the approval of MET towers. Talk about corporate manipulation of the law!
      The fact remains that MET towers are used exclusively by a wind developer as a tool to procure financing from investors. That’s right, they have no scientific value at all, they are simply a symbol that the developer has made it through the permit process and are more likely to get the destructive permit for wind towers themselves. The developers still don’t have to share the MET tower data because that is a “trade secret”. Showing such “data” would only prove that the developers have been operating a scam all along.
      The CPG (certificate of public good) is issued for MET tower erection but how can they claim such a thing is in the public good? The PSB says it’s because industrial wind is in the public good and the developers have to have their MET towers to put up the wind towers. But if you argue against a MET tower at a PSB hearing they tell you you cannot talk about industrial wind, only the MET towers. See the catch here?
      The PSB well knows this hypocrisy is present in their workings but they are paid to keep the scam going and we the people suffer for it.

  3. Greg Lapworth :

    Quite surprised by a former Medical Doctor “of average intelligence” who would oppose the short term use of natural gas to reduce our carbon footprint by up to 50%.
    And a correction is necessary: many of these people present at the hearing are “professional protesters”. Not just this cause but most anything the New Vermont feels isn’t “left”, i.e. “champagne socialist”, enough. Watch for the same names to pop up again and again. Please pay attention, these people are set on remaking our lives to their bent/looney/selfish/ill-informed ideals.

    • Philip Beliveau :

      Greg, It has already been shown that a 50% reduction in pollution is not true if taken from the drill to the point of consumption due to gas leaks at many points along the way. It is disingenuous to only count the point of consumption as if nothing happened further back in the chain. I don’t remember anything in the contract about short term use? The people we have to watch out for are foreign gas companies trying to remake our lives to fit their selfish, all for profit ideals! I am a Vermont land owner in the pipeline route and I am not interested is subsidizing Gaz Metro and IP from my land values and moral values.

    • Mary Martin :

      Greg, you shouldn’t be surprised by Dr. Fifield’s objection to the pipeline. You don’t take land by eminent domain for a short term usage. Eminenet Domain is forever! If the Mill was interested in the short term, they wouldn’t be spending millions upon millions of dollars on pipeline and conversion.

      And I need to correct your correction. We are not professional protesters. We are average people whose lives and properties are being threatened by 2 big businesses. Property that we have paid for and worked for years. It is not “selfish” to want to keep what is ours. We do not want our farm land taken for corporate profits.

      The same names and many new ones will pop up again and again as people learn more about this.

      So, I will lift my glass of champagne and toast to the defeat of this ill conceived pipelie!

    • Maren Vasatka :

      Mr. Lapworth, I spoke at the last public hearing on Phase I and this public hearing. I have attended all hearings but only spoke at the last two. As someone who has attended them all, I saw many people that had not spoken before. I was warmed by their coming out and some of them from far distances to help in this fight.

      I am not a professional protester, you see Vermont Gas wants to put this pipeline in my back yard, they don’t want to pay me very much, they won’t assure me that they will take responsibility for any damages, in fact they want us to sign away damage claims in return for money. They don’t have the answers to any of our construction questions and they threaten to use eminent domain to take use of the land on which my family lives.

      I didn’t start out against natural gas, I grew up in Minnesota and NG is all I ever knew. However because Vermont Gas couldn’t answer questions, these Vermonters found their own answers. We found a company that was NOT a good neighbor with sub- contractors which have questionable hiring and negotiating practices and a product we don’t need. We have viable alternatives available to us.

      So yes you will see my name again and again but I am not set on remaking your lives to my ideals. But I do ask why are you set on making my live bent and looney so that you can have your selfish desire for this archaic Natural Gas?

    • John Greenberg :

      Greg,
      Wasn’t the United States founded by “professional protesters?” Without them, we’d still be singing God save the Queen!

  4. Greg Lapworth :

    We had land taken “forever” for a sidewalk and road widening. Eminent domain is the law, don’t like it…change the law. It comes with owning property. And stop your bloody whining.
    How many of the protestors heat with tar sand oil and don’t even know it. The majority of our heating oil comes from our best neighbour, Canada.
    Philip, how does the Great Green Prius stand up for consumption from origin to end of life? And I said up to 50%.
    Using AGW as a socialist tool is not going to work. The New Vermont certainly is full of themselves. Sorry, but it’s not all about you.

    • Mary Martin :

      The law states you cannot take land using eminent domain for business profits.

      • Greg Lapworth :

        This is for the majority public good.

        • Mary Martin :

          If the majority is Gaz metro and International Paper, then you would be right. Wrong!

    • George Klohck :

      Greg,

      With all due respect I beg to differ again. You may remember me from our recent phone conversation.

      I want to ask you a question. You conclude your latest statement by writing, “Sorry, it’s not all about you.” Here is my question: Is everyone with a different opinion supposed to believe that it IS all about you? On the phone you told me flat out that you didn’t want to listen to me because you “wouldn’t believe me.”

      I know many of the people who have written in the discussion above. For some of them (and other people that I know), eminent domain is not about taking a little corner of their property; it’s about turning their whole lives upside down. Don’t they have a right to be heard without being insulted by being called whiners? Many of us in this discussion have nothing personally to gain, but we’re here to stand up for something we really believe in – a sustainable environment – and to support others who we feel are being hurt.

      You seem to think that I, and people like me who are not native Vermonters, came here to change your state. Well, no. I came here because I liked Vermont the way it is. Now I don’t want the changes in my chosen home state that the multinational gas and paper companies are trying to make. Could you possibly respect that?

      • Greg Lapworth :

        Your group have lost all credibility over the past year, so why listen to the same old misinformation. Problem is the anti’s are all we hear.
        Gaz metro multi-national? Quebec will love that.
        I thought your soliciting telephone call was an error…..should I now repeat all your “I don’t have an answer to that” replies to my questions. Enjoy your propane heating source?

        Enough said.

  5. Jane Palmer :

    Greg, I assume since you used the term “taken forever” in regards to your land used for road widening and sidewalk means you didn’t willfully give up your land and it had to be condemned using eminent domain. Or did you willingly sell your land to the town or state so pedestrians and motorists would have a safer place to travel?
    Tell me, do you ever worry the sidewalk might blow up? Does the “public” own the sidewalk? And can anyone use the sidewalk or is it only for a select few corporate “citizens”?
    There is a big difference between taking land for public use and taking land for private gain. For many of us, this pipeline is nothing we will ever use. In fact, it is nothing most of our neighbors will use. It’s a deal where Vermont Gas gets all the good stuff and we get none. I’m sorry, but a 12 inch, high pressure pipeline full of methane is not the same as a sidewalk or even a road and eminent domain is, by law, supposed to be used for the public good and this project does not fit that criteria if the public cannot use it.

    • Greg Lapworth :

      We have all noted the major explosions in Burlington and other towns served by natural gas here in Vt. Over the past 50 years of natural gas usage? Give it a break. That’s an old tired whine.

      • Mary Martin :

        Actually sir, I have read some of your past posts and determined that you are not worth a rebuttal.

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