We appreciate the Middlebury selectboard's sharing their reasons for their continued endorsement of the Addison Natural Gas Project, however it appears that a reality check is in order.
The selectboard says that the facts don't support concerns about the increased danger the pipeline will represent. I guess the pipeline leaks that Vermont Gas experienced last month (in St. Albans on April 24, and in Hinesburg on April 25) and the leak less than a month later on May 21 in South Burlington don't count. Thankfully, no spark ignited these leaks causing a deadly explosion and fire.
The selectboard also cites lower greenhouse gas emissions as a reason for supporting the Vermont Gas pipeline. Unfortunately, research conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that up to 9 percent of the gas leaks from gas wells, more than double the official inventory but in line with estimates made in 2011 by a Cornell University research team who also tested for methane leaks around active wells.
Then there is the study published in the journal Atmospheric Environment by a UC Santa Barbara scientist who tested air samples across large parts of the U.S. during a cross-country drive and found methane emissions far higher than expected, confirming the more localized studies. This would not be a problem if not for the fact that methane is over 100 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide in the short term and about 21 times more potent in accelerating climate change in the long term.
While our selectboard prides itself on making decisions based upon the best information available, it appears that in this case the "best information" considered by the selectboard is a report by the U.S. EPA, an organization with the conflicting job of being both a regulatory agency and promoter of the fossil fuel industry. EPA estimates are not based on extensive direct measurement, monitoring and reporting of hard data, but are calculated indirectly by applying estimated emission factors to data on the total amount of gas produced. An audit by the inspector general of the EPA cited the agency for lacking "directly measured air emissions data" and "a comprehensive strategy for improving air emissions data for the oil and gas industry." The inspector general also found that "about half" of the EPA emissions factors were based on insufficient or low-quality data.
The board's letter declares their agreement that "renewables are necessary for a sustainable future" and notes a United Nations report that predicts up to 21 percent of industrial energy usage will be from renewables by 2050. They are failing to act upon this recognition since support of the pipeline delays progress on implementing our renewable energy infrastructure. They instead acknowledge other studies with slightly higher numbers, but with the overall message that we will be depending on coal, oil, gas, and nuclear power for many years to come.
They must not be aware of the recent Stanford University study that found that New York state alone could supply 99 percent of the entire state's energy needs from renewables within 20 years. With the realization that today, Germany meets about 40 percent of its energy needs from renewables, it appears that the real reason we will be relying on nuclear and fossil fuels for many years to come, is because our political and business leaders continue to invest in fossil fuel infrastructure and delay investment in renewable energy...the Middlebury falls hydro-electricity project that has been languishing on the drawing board for several years now comes to mind.
Selectman Nick Artim has stated that the majority of town residents support the pipeline project. However, since no vote has been held on the issue and no polling has been done to gauge residents' opinions, any statement that a majority of citizens either support or oppose the gas pipeline project is just speculation. If the selectboard were serious about allowing Middlebury residents the ability to choose among our energy options, it would allow a vote on whether the town should support the pipeline.
The selectboard also claims that economic savings by businesses are necessary to create jobs, and suggests that we are suffering from some kind of job crisis. The data do not support the position that natural gas service in an important factor that causes businesses to succeed or fail, or impact the hiring of workers. Vermont's unemployment rate, seasonably adjusted, was 4.1 percent in March, third lowest in the nation. Compare that to the rates of states that have the most dense interstate natural gas transmission lines in the nation: Ohio, 7.1 percent; Pennsylvania, 7.9 percent; New York, 8.2 percent; West Virginia, 7.0 percent; Texas, 6.4 percent; Louisiana, 6.2 percent. Clearly, variables other than natural gas infrastructure have a greater influence on the economic condition of a state or a county.
And yet, the strongest argument in favor of the pipeline made by the selectboard is economics. Vermont Gas Systems will make hundreds of millions of dollars for their Canadian owners if the pipeline is built. Unfortunately, the rest of the businesses and residents who decide to buy fracked Canadian gas can expect prices to rise significantly in the next few years because the collapse in natural gas prices dropped the price below the cost of production, an unsustainable situation for drilling companies. Thus, claimed savings of $200 million over 20 years that Middlebury can expect are grossly overstated. Savings will only be short-term.
If the selectboard were serious about taking action to reduce emissions, protect the environment, support the local economy, grow jobs, provide long-term savings on fuel costs, and support the position of the majority of residents, they would abandon further fossil fuel infrastructure development and aggressively pursue renewables and energy efficiency. This past year a Vermont legislative task force determined that it would take about $27 million to retrofit 80,000 Vermont homes for energy efficiency while providing energy cost savings and jobs, actions that polls have shown the majority of Vermonters support. For the price of the Addison Natural Gas Project, we could retrofit every home in Addison County with the latest energy-efficiency upgrades and still have money left to install solar panels on many homes. However, it looks like our selectboard is not going to allow facts to get in their way.
Ross Conrad and Alice Eckles