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Climate change, pipeline spark conversation

BRATTLEBORO—Audience members at a climate change discussion shook their heads at the discrepancy between Vermont’s ban on fracking and a proposed pipeline that would carry the controversial fuel through the state.

How can Windham County step up and support communities standing before the Vermont Gas Systems pipeline project in Addison and Franklin counties? This question was asked repeatedly during a Feb. 17 meeting on climate change, corporate power, and community rights at The Root Social Justice Center.

Keith Brunner discussed the Vermont Gas Systems Addison Natural Gas Project and community action with a small audience. Brunner is a member of Rising Tide Vermont, a local branch of the international organization Rising Tide, which is committed to reversing the root causes of climate change.

“There are front-line communities here in Vermont, like Monkton,” said Brunner.

The discussion was part of Rising Tide Vermont’s statewide roadshow to raise awareness of climate change and support activists’ efforts to resist the pipeline.

Brunner said that the organization believes keeping fossil fuels in the ground is better for the environment.

That said, he added, not all alternative fuels are equal to all communities, such as commercial wind. Rising Tide Vermont aims to support community-based solutions to climate change.

It’s very important to organize in communities directly affected by energy installations, such as the pipeline or in energy extraction, said Brunner.

Brunner said that confronting climate change and fostering community-based solutions often require changing society from the ground up. Many communities in the line of large corporate interests have also been affected by systems like racism or patriarchy.

Rising Tide Vermont also conducts trainings in direct action, said Brunner.

Audience members and Brunner discussed plans for the Vermont Gas pipeline, climate change issues, how to support the communities that supported Windham County in its fight against Entergy Corp.’s Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, reducing energy consumption, and reaching out to people outside those already singing in the climate-change choir.

Although Windham County is not a front-line community, said Tim Stevenson, co-founder of Post Oil Solutions, this area still needs to build a willingness to act on climate change.

“At the end of the day, this gas pipeline is not going to be the last pipeline,” said Brunner. “And this is not going to be the last fight.”

Vermont Gas Systems, Inc. is part of Northern New England Energy Corporation, which also owns Green Mountain Power. It, in turn, is owned by Montreal-based Gaz Métro.

According to its website, Vermont Gas Systems provides natural gas to more than 6,000 customers in Chittenden and Franklin counties.

Brunner pointed out that the proposed pipeline will carry gas obtained through fracking, the shorthand term for hydraulic fracturing, a technique that releases pockets of natural gas from shale rock through a process of injecting water at high pressure into the rock.

Supporters of fracking say it provides a much-needed resource of cheap natural gas. Opponents say the process is environmentally damaging and feeds climate change.

Last autumn, Rising Tide Vermont was one of the groups that helped organize a rally at Vermont Gas Systems, said Brunner.

At that rally, a lot of people “moved from ‘Not in my back yard’ to ‘Why is this happening in the first place?’” he said.

The company’s three-phase pipeline project will expand Vermont Gas Systems’ existing natural gas lines south into Addison and Rutland counties. A deal with Memphis-based International Paper Co. would also bring the pipeline from Middlebury into Ticonderoga, N.Y.

According to Brunner, the project likely marks the start of a statewide natural gas network. Pipelines may eventually reach west to Newport and farther south to Bennington and Windham counties, he told the audience.

On Dec. 23, 2013, the Public Service Board awarded Vermont Gas Systems a Certificate of Public Good for the first phase of the project.

Brunner told his audience that, according to Rising Tides Vermont’s latest number, Vermont Gas had obtained only 52 percent of the easements necessary for Phase One of the project. The company had hoped to start construction on the pipeline by now.

The company may use eminent domain to obtain the easements, Brunner added.

As the conversation turned back to climate change and community organization, audience members commented on how the issue can feel overwhelming — especially for people struggling economically.

Brunner said he understood why some property owners agreed to grant Vermont Gas the requested easements: Many easements come with a large financial payout, and rural communities have been hit hard by the tough economy, he said.

Brunner added that it’s important as well to create a “just transition” in the fight against climate change. Sometimes organizing for something is as important as fighting against something, he said.

With Vermonters struggling to heat their homes or afford cars to travel to work, organizing around weatherization and public transportation can also help combat climate change, he said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #243 (Wednesday, February 26, 2014). This story appeared on page A3.

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