Rising Tide Vermont Turns Up The Heat In Climate Change Fight

Dec 31, 2014

When I met Sara Mehalick in late May, she had a bike lock around her neck.

She'd chained herself to the front door of the Vermont Gas Systems headquarters building in South Burlington.

"I'm here today in defense of a livable planet and because the construction of new fossil fuel infrastructure like the proposed fracked gas pipeline is really the exact opposite direction that we need to be going," she said at the time.

Mehalick got arrested later that day for trespassing. Police had to cut the chain attaching her to the building and she was pulled away, refusing to even walk with the police.

It made for great video on the evening news, and that was the point.

Mehalick was demonstrating with Rising Tide Vermont, and the group had a hand in almost every protest against the Vermont Gas pipeline this summer.

The demonstrations come as Vermont Gas Systems and Gov. Peter Shumlin are pushing for a pipeline that would bring natural gas south from Chittenden County, eventually to Rutland.

Rising Tide Vermont - relatively unknown before this year - emerged as the the leading voice in opposition to the pipeline, staging demonstrations that sometimes halted work on the pipeline for hours and led to arrests.

The demonstrations make for great visuals, like the pictures of a woman in a straw hat and floral dress in handcuffs surrounded by police and police cars.

Jane Palmer was arrested on July 2 when, with support from Rising Tide, she sat knitting in the Vermont Gas building lobby demanding a meeting.
Credit Taylor Dobbs / VPR File Photo

That was Jane Palmer. She's a Monkton landowner with an otherwise spotless criminal record. The story of her arrest for trespassing, and the "knit-in" that caused it went viral. And it wasn't an accident.

"The way I would characterize it is if you needed plumbing done on your house, you'd call a plumber. If you're going to do some direct action, you call Rising Tide," she says.

Palmer says she's not a confrontational person, but she felt like the regulatory process stripped her of her voice. She had real concerns about the pipeline, and she didn't feel like there was any other way to be heard.

She wasn't the only person this summer saying the regulatory system in Vermont is broken - that it's stacked in favor of big, well-lawyered corporations and against everyday Vermonters.

"The way I would characterize it is if you needed plumbing done on your house, you'd call a plumber. If you're going to do some direct action, you call Rising Tide." - Jane Palmer

Will Bennington, one of the organizers with Rising Tide Vermont, says that's why the protests are needed.

"We can empower our own communities to step outside that legal framework when it isn't working for us and take direct action to win the things that we need to win," he says.

But there are also strong environmental advocates working within the existing system to try to accomplish their goals. One of the big players on that front is the Conservation Law Foundation.

Senior Attorney Sandy Levine has been filing petitions with the state's quasi-judicial Public Service Board fighting big corporations for years.

She clearly sees value in litigation, but she says groups like Rising Tide complement her work in the hearing room.

"I think Rising Tide has really shown the magnitude of the concern about climate change and global warming in Vermont, and particularly with the proposed expansion of the Vermont Gas pipeline and more broadly, fossil fuel projects," she says.

And that concern is growing nationally. Organizers from Rising Tide and other Vermont groups went to New York City in September for the People's Climate March - the largest climate demonstration in history. One of those groups was 350 Vermont, a spin-off of 350.org also dedicated to fighting climate change and its causes.

350 Vermont coordinator Maeve McBride was there, and she says with the march, the grassroots opposition to pipelines all over the nation, and the level of activism around climate change generally, this is an important moment.

And she says these tactics - the ones that get people arrested and make headlines - help raise awareness of the climate issue. 

"These tactics of direct action, of civil disobedience, are entirely needed at this point in the movement, because the change we need is so large," she says. "History has shown that in the past to create the climate that's going to make that change happen, you have to shake it up a bit."

"I think Rising Tide has really shown the magnitude of the concern about climate change and global warming in Vermont." - Sandy Levine, Conservation Law Foundation

And 350 Vermont joined Rising Tide Vermont to shake it up after the climate march. More than 100 people staged a sit-in outside Governor Shumlin's office, demanding a meeting.

Sixty-four stayed until they were arrested.

These actions can't get building permits revoked or be considered by regulators. But they do get the point across. Even Vermont Gas says so.

"We respect every Vermonter's opinion," says company spokeswoman Beth Parent. "Our incoming CEO since he started has been saying this company has an open-door, roundtable approach to Vermont's very important energy dialog."

Having Jane Palmer arrested for refusing to leave the company lobby until she can meet with an executive isn't an open door policy. But that was under outgoing CEO Don Gilbert.

So would it go differently now, under the new CEO, Don Rendall?

"I do believe it would," says Parent. "We respect every Vermonter's opinion and we really think that this is about dialog, and we really want to sit down at the table with anybody who wants to sit with us and have an open, honest, straightforward dialog."

Whether Rising Tide had a hand in that softening of relations is an open question, But organizer Will Bennington says Rising Tide thinks so. He doesn't plan to ease up now that the company is claiming to "reset" its approach.

"I think we need to keep the heat up on Vermont Gas and on the governor," he says, "because we're actually seeing right now that it's working."

Phase I of the pipeline is approved, and Vermont Gas has already started building, but Phase II will enter the regulatory process soon, and Rising Tide will be working to make sure you hear about it.