MONTPELIER, VERMONT — Despite Vermont becoming the first state in the U.S. to ban the practice of fracking more than two years ago, Vermonters are, to this day, willfully risking arrest to stop more fracking infrastructure from coming into their state.
On Monday, 64 Vermonters were arrested at Governor Peter Shumlin’s office in protest of a new fracked gas pipeline proposal — the largest civil disobedience action the state has seen since the Winooski 44’s protest of the Iran-Contra scandal in 1984. On October 10, the three Shumlin-appointed board members of the Vermont Public Service Commission, the agency charged with regulating utility projects in Vermont, granted a “certificate of public good” (CPG) to a pipeline project proposed by Gaz Metro, Quebec’s largest natural gas company, and subsidiary Vermont Gas (phase 1). The phase 1 proposal has become controversial due to projected costs skyrocketing from $86 million to $120 million. The granting of the CPG was unprecedented, given that previous public hearings on the pipeline project were packed with citizens opposing the project.
An additional $70 million pipeline extension that Gov. Shumlin has endorsed (phase 2) is being built to specifically accommodate International Paper in Ticonderoga, New York, which is financing that project exclusively. Half a mile of the phase 2 pipeline will run 30 feet directly beneath Lake Champlain, which supplies drinking water to 145,000 people. A detailed public letter penned by Vermont state senators Claire Ayer and Christopher Bray, along with state representative Willem Jewett, asked public service board members not to grant the CPG for the phase 2 pipeline, disputing the “public good” of a project that carried natural gas from Canada through Vermont, to one private, out-of-state customer.
The arrestees and over 500 supporters who demonstrated outside the building are demanding Shumlin use his authority to stop the construction of the pipeline and withdraw support for new fossil fuel infrastructure in Vermont.
“We are fed up with a broken, unaccountable, and biased process that is ignoring the clear and present danger of expanding fossil fuel infrastructure so that Gaz Metro and International Paper can increase their profit margins,” said Jane Palmer, a landowner in Monkton along the Phase 1 pipeline route. “The Shumlin administration is ignoring the thousands of Vermonters, including impacted landowners and over 500 ratepayers, who know we can’t afford this project.”
CREDIT: Carl Gibson
Shumlin’s support of the pipeline project is unusual, since his signature was responsible for Vermont becoming the first state to officially ban the practice of fracking in 2012. However, a closer look at campaign finance records may suggest motivation for Shumlin’s green-lighting of the projects. In August of 2014, Federal Express donated $3,500 to Shumlin’s ongoing re-election campaign. FedEx CEO David Bronczek is a member of International Paper’s board of directors, who could directly benefit from the phase 2 pipeline. And according to page 3 of Vermont Gas’s official request for the phase 1 pipeline, it is revealed that Casella Waste Systems — Shumlin’s top campaign contributor from the energy/natural resources industry — operates 11 natural gas-powered trash and recycling trucks in Vermont, and fuels them at a facility in Williston, directly in the path of the phase 1 pipeline.
Despite the controversy over Shumlin’s support of the Vermont Gas pipeline and extension, one Vermont state legislator who co-sponsored the 2012 fracking ban says comparing the ban to a pipeline transporting natural gas is like comparing apples to oranges.
“We have a ban on hydraulic fracturing, but we do not have a ban on interstate commerce,” said Representative Jim McCullough, vice chairman of the House Committee on Fish, Wildlife, and Water Resources, whose district houses Vermont Gas’s pipeyard. “There are people who have tied the two together, but it’s not the same issue.”
One protester who was arrested during Monday’s action says it’s hypocritical for Gov. Shumlin to be against fracking while supporting a pipeline transporting fracked gas from out of state.
“It’s about NIMBYism. Not fracking in my backyard,” said Ben Eastwood, who is running for Vermont Secretary of State on the Progressive Party ticket, and experienced his first-ever arrest Monday night. “My backyard may not be burning that CO2, but it’s still adding to that overall global output.”
A Vermonter whose backyard lies directly in the phase 2 pipeline’s path came out Monday in support of the action, but chose not to risk arrest. Barbara Wilson of Shoreham, Vermont, owns a small organic berry farm near the shores of Lake Champlain. She said if the pipeline extension were built, both she and her neighbors would be directly impacted.
“It’s going through a wetland and through the habitat of the Indiana Bat, which is on the endangered species list,” Wilson said. “But what really makes me against this is what’s being carried in the pipeline — frack gas.”
Wilson said rather than invest state tax dollars in outdated fossil fuel infrastructure, she would prefer federal and state dollars go toward community-based solar programs that provide enough electricity to power homes, with zero CO2 output. She added current laws are too cost-prohibitive for the average homeowner to convert from coal and gas-powered electricity to solar.
“Right now, [solar] is really only available for corporations and one-percenters with a lot of money,” Wilson said. “What we need is a way for the community to own their own solar panels and rely on that infrastructure, without having to make somebody rich.”
During the arrests on Monday night, protesters sang, “We shall not give up the fight, we have only started.” Event organizers Rising Tide Vermont and 350 Vermont vowed to consistently use civil disobedience against the pipelines until their demands were met. Ben Eastwood said the action at Shumlin’s office was just the beginning, saying the Vermonters’ actions were in the same vein as the Moral Monday protests at the North Carolina legislature and the Solidarity Sing Along protests at the Wisconsin state capitol.
“We’re not going to give up, we’re going to fight, we’re going to escalate, and use our voices and our bodies and our ability to get arrested to make the point,” Eastwood said.
Vermont Gas is expected to make an appeal to the state public service board in mid-November to approve the phase 2 pipeline to Ticonderoga. In response to Monday’s action, Rising Tide Vermont has announced a blockade of Vermont Gas’s pipeyard in Williston, Vermont on Saturday, November 1st at 9 a.m.
Carl Gibson is a contributing editor for Reader Supported News and Occupy.com, and author of the book "How to Oust a Congressman." Follow him on Twitter at @uncutCG.