Pipeline Protest Displays Political Rift, Hints at Common Ground

  • Willow Ducharme, 4, of White River Junction, Vt., dances with Donlon Wade, of Canaan, N.H., during a protest at Colburn Park in Lebanon, N.H., on Aug. 12, 2017. Protester gathered against the proposed gas pipeline that would run through the Upper Valley. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Margaret Schultz, of North Pomfret, Vt., listens during a protest against the proposed gas pipeline that would run through the Upper Valley on Aug. 12, 2017 in Lebanon, N.H. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Sunday, August 13, 2017

Lebanon — As nearly 200 people, mostly liberals and activists from the far left of the political spectrum, gathered in Colburn Park on a sunny Saturday afternoon to protest a natural gas pipeline proposed by Liberty Utilities, a woman from one of the co-sponsoring organizations riled the crowd by assaulting their partisan leanings.

“Do you know who the first New Hampshire legislator to come out against the pipeline was?” Stephanie Scherr, founder of the nonprofit activist organization Echo, asked, using a microphone to deliver her address from the stage. “Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte.”

The stark praise for the Republican was met with a mutter of surprise and distaste from many of those who stood or sat in the grass, listening.

“That sound, that booing, is what I’m talking about,” continued Scherr. The obstacle before those opposed to the pipeline, she said, was to build an anti-pipeline coalition that transcended political affiliations.

“When you hear someone is a Republican, don’t make assumptions,” she said, shortly before leaving the stage to a round of applause.

For many of those in the audience, Scherr’s advice touched on a thorny problem in modern-day America.

“I don’t have any Republican friends,” said Norman Emmond, a retired plumber from Charlestown. Emmond was in the crowd, holding up the head of a large makeshift “fracking snake” made of black plastic tubing and cardboard.

Emmond, who described himself as a socialist, said he would welcome the votes of political conservatives who opposed the pipeline, but he wouldn’t like to sit down with them for dinner.

“I do have my limits,” he said.

Liberty’s plan, to truck natural gas to a proposed facility near the Lebanon landfill on Route 12 and then pipe it to Hanover and surrounding communities, is before the New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission.

Pipeline opponents have cheered recent moves by the Dartmouth College Sustainability Task Force and the Lebanon City Council to remove references to natural gas in their long-term energy plans.

Much of the opposition has been focused on the environmental effects of fracking, also known as hydraulic fracturing, which extracts natural gas by injecting liquid into the ground to break up underground rock formations.

A March Gallup poll found that the partisan gap on environmental issues has grown dramatically in the months since Donald Trump assumed the presidency, with 64 percent of Republicans saying the environment is in “good” or “excellent” shape, versus just 37 percent of Democrats.

That complements Gallup poll data that shows a widening partisan divide on various issues, from level of worry about climate change, to stances on immigration, gun laws and the death penalty.

Political analysts say increasing partisanship has led to more polarization of Democrats and Republicans in Washington, where straight party-line votes have become more common. Murray Ngoima, another socialist who was holding up the rear end of the snake, said some of the students in the art classes she teaches in her hometown of Pomfret have told her they think speaking their mind is downright dangerous.

“People who live in communities where a majority are Republicans or Trump supporters, they do not feel comfortable expressing their views,” she said, citing cases in which outspoken people have been ostracized or received “digital hate mail.”

Claire Nan, of Lebanon, said she has a difficult time broaching political topics with a conservative co-worker at Deep Meadows, a Windsor-based organic farm. “I assume he cares about the environment, because he works on an organic farm,” she said. But she’s never asked him, in part because she worries that such a discussion could harm their friendly relationship.

Nan’s friend, Lebanon resident Anders Lascala, said his primary interaction with Republicans is when he does field work for Norwich Solar Technologies, alongside contracting crews from other companies. “A lot of them voted for Trump,” he said. “And I asked them why.” Lascala said he found himself agreeing with some of the issues that they raised — he doesn’t like people unnecessarily taking advantage of government support systems, either — but he found it was a question of priorities.

“They’re not wrong,” he said. “But there’s more to it.”

Many who said they had meaningful, engaging discussions with people from other sectors of the political spectrum agreed that the common ground is there.

Ngoima said that means refraining from attempting to educate a friend or acquaintance on why one ideology is better than the other. “Sometimes, you know something that somebody is not ready to hear,” she said. “So you don’t have to say it.”

Ashley Andreas, a resident of Hartford who works at the modular home builder Vermod, said it’s easy for her to navigate political discussions with conservative co-workers.

“We find a common enemy, and a common interest,” Andreas said. For example, she said, as a Bernie Sanders supporter, she was able to commiserate with her co-workers over complaints about Hillary Clinton’s establishment ties.

And when it comes to the pipeline, she said, finding common ground with conservatives interested in economic development was easy. “I agree that our economy is in big trouble, and we do need jobs,” she said. “But we already have those clean energy businesses in Vermont that are growing. Let’s help them expand instead of supporting out-of-state interests.”

Another public opinion poll suggests Americans are hungry for political solutions that spring from this common ground. In September, Gallup found a majority of both Democrats and Republicans — 53 percent to 21 percent — wish politicians would engage in more compromise, rather than stick to their principles and get less done.

Hartford Selectman Simon Dennis, who has been active in opposing the pipeline, said the political divide might not be as big, or as insurmountable, as one might think. “I don’t really believe in the divide,” he said. “It’s theater. The further you go to the left, the closer you get to the right.” He extended his arm, pointing to a group of about two dozen motorcyclists riding past Colburn Park. “Is that the left or the right?” he asked. “I bet they’re not really worried about it.”

Dennis said the pipeline is a good example of a bridge issue. “There’s something for everyone,” he said. “If you care about the rights of working-class farmers in Pennsylvania, then this issue is important to you. And if you care about municipal autonomy, then you care about this issue. The only people that profit from this pipeline are the people that put it in.”

Liberty serves more than half a million customers in eight states, including New Hampshire, and hopes to spend about $9.7 million to build the first phase of the project, beginning in 2018. The PUC, which is charged with ensuring Liberty has the “managerial, technical and financial capacity” to run the project, is requesting and reviewing financial documents to make that determination.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.