Lintilhac: Natural gas pipeline takes Vermont in the wrong direction

Editor’s note: This op-ed is by Crea Lintilhac, director of the Lintilhac Foundation in Shelburne. She serves on the boards of the Conservation Law Foundation, the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, the Conservation and Research Foundation and numerous other science advisory boards.

No one can fault Don Gilbert, president of Vermont Gas Systems, from promoting his favorite fossil fuel, but his assumptions on the emissions and cost savings of a proposed gas pipeline are based on outdated information and not aligned with more recent science.

Vermont Gas Systems is in the planning and permitting stages of a major natural gas transmission pipeline expansion in Chittenden and Addison counties. The proposed pipeline project will extend from Colchester to Vergennes and Middlebury, then under Lake Champlain to Ticonderoga, N.Y., to serve the International Paper mill.

In recent weeks, opposition to the pipeline has increased as landowners, climate activists like Bill McKibben, and environmental groups like the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, Toxics Action Center and the Vermont Natural Resources Council became aware of the environmental and human health risks associated with hydraulic fracturing, gas consumption and high transmission pipelines.

The opposition is concerned that the gas in the pipeline is obtained through hydraulic fracturing, “fracking” an increasingly common form of extracting gas that blasts a high-pressure cocktail of sand, water and chemicals below the surface of the earth to crack open deposits of gas in shale formations.

In detailed testimony recently filed with the Vermont Public Service Board, the Conservation Law Foundation explained that the simplistic evaluation by Vermont Gas, that the gas pipeline expansion will reduce emissions, is simply wrong.

Testimony from Dr. Elizabeth Stanton shows that the emissions from the full natural gas life cycle of the project result in significant increases in global warming pollution. That’s because it is most likely Vermont Gas Systems’ gas supply would come from hydraulic fracturing wells producing methane emissions. Methane — a much more potent greenhouse gas than CO2 — is particularly troubling because, molecule for molecule, methane has roughly 25 times the warming power of CO2 according to recent EPA estimates.

According to a 2011 Cornell study, gas obtained through fracking is worse than coal and oil in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.

In Dr. Stanton’s testimony, she says that in 2010, Vermonters paid over $600 million to import fossil fuel-based heating fuels; most of the money leaves the Vermont economy. She also says that “Expanding natural gas increases emissions more than three million tons over 100 years and brings environmental costs of an additional $76,000,000.”

The consumer is better protected from energy price swings and spikes by efficiency and conservation, not natural gas delivery. Natural gas is not cleaner energy.

Testimony by Dr. Jon Erickson, dean of the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources at the University of Vermont, shows that by expanding the gas pipeline we would be locking in to fossil fuels at a time our climate and energy goals require moving in the opposite direction.

He states: “Any expansion of the delivery of natural gas to customers in Vermont has the potential to substitute for other nonrenewable, carbon-based fuels (such as fuel oil), but also has the potential to displace current and future uses of renewable energy (such as wood-based home heating or district heating).”

His testimony goes on to state: “Beyond greenhouse gas-related risk, the extraction of natural gas supplies is using increasingly environmentally damaging procedures such as hydro-fracking, a practice that Vermont has banned within State borders. Environmental regulation in other States and Canadian Provinces poses a risk to the long-term stability of natural gas supplies.”

Then there is another testimony from Jeffrey Wolfe, former CEO of groSolar, who says that

“Since similar energy cost savings for individuals are likely available through weatherization costing less than the per customer cost for the pipeline, this would be a way to lower energy bills for these customers. Weatherization and other energy efficiency measures results in very sure reduction and stabilization of energy bills.”

The consumer is better protected from energy price swings and spikes by efficiency and conservation, not natural gas delivery. Natural gas is not cleaner energy.

Since a major expansion of the pipeline could cause thousands of Vermonters to lock in with natural gas for generations rather than switch to a renewable alternative, I believe this huge investment in the pipeline infrastructure takes us in the wrong direction.

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  • Jacob Miller

    For every Vermonter who get out of their car and on to a bicycle there are 25 people in China who are getting off their bicycle and into an automobile.

    Vermont’s environment is attached to the global environment.

  • Andy Davis

    I can interpret Jacob Miller’s response in two ways:

    1) Because we are all “attached” and other nations are hell bent for unbridled carbon emissions then Vermont’s efforts are meaningless.

    2) Because we are all “attached” and other nations are hell bent for unbridled carbon emissions then Vermont’s efforts are even more important.

    Sign me up for the second interpretation.

  • Jacob Miller

    Mr Davis,

    Although commendable, Vermont’s efforts are unfortunately insignificant and will have negligible impact on the global environment. I wish it were true and I try to limit my “carbon footprint” as much as possible, i.e. 4 large solar panels in the front yard, compact vehicle, LED lighting, nevertheless, I do not delude my self into thinking that the effort is making, or will make, a significant difference to climate change. We can pat ourselves on the back and feel good about our actions but just look at the World Population Clock in the lower left hand cornet of this web site.

  • Laura Asermily

    Well taken point about runaway world population growth. More of us should be making point that managing family size is a much deeper carbon cutter than other typical efforts mentioned above. That said, education on fracked gas and minimizing its use remains necessary in my mind.

  • Steve Comeau

    Natural gas distribution in Chittenden county helps the local economy by providing a lower cost fuel to many homes and businesses. The only reasonable “renewable alternative” energy sources in this area that is useful for heating are wood and wood pellets. Wood is a good local resource, but not sensible in many high-density housing situations or businesses, and also pollutes the air, in some cases contributing to asthma and other respiratory problems. A natural gas boiler vents mostly water vapor, CO2, and some carbon monoxide.

    It is easy to bring out the “weatherization”, “efficiency”, and “conservation”, but these as red herrings, as all of this can be done by people using natural gas. This pipeline will be good for western Vermont.

  • I am a nurse who lives in Monkton, Vermont not a mile from where the Canadian owned Gaz company would like to forge a path. I joined many other rural Vermont residents in opposing openly this pipeline. I have done research. New York state did not recommend natural gas pipelines in long rural areas, or sensitive areas. Am Disappointed more environmental people have not been more vocal in the press. I wrote to our town and was not even responded to, it was not considered in their decisions. They decided against the wishes of many residents. If the press was more probing into the real hazards of ng in the north country, they would forget the ad revenue and tell the truth. Pipeline NO.

  • Sam Koplinka-Loehr

    Great discussion so far, in response to your comment Jacob – I am reminded about the extensive goals of Vermont Gas and GazMetro, which include extended the pipeline down into Rutland County and connecting to the national grid in NYS. Having grown up in New York, and living with hydrofracking leases all around my family’s land, I am acutely aware of how the local struggle against the Addison County Natural Gas pipeline is literally laying the groundwork for increased pressure on building more infrastructure in New York and throughout Vermont. While yes, our impact may be small, we are also looking at the beginning of a domino effect that we collectively have the power to say NO to. The other option, of more pipeline, wells, and pressure for hydrofracking at the points of extraction in Canada and NY, is frankly terrifying. Thanks for a great op-ed Crea!

  • Mary Martin

    Great piece.I do have a couple of questions. You state that VT Natural Resources Council is aware of the issues surrounding not-so-natural gas. Have they come out against the pipeline? Would Doctors Erickson and Stanton help us to defeat this ill-conceived plan? We can use all the help we can get.
    Keep up the good work!