Woozy in Wonderland


by Rebecca Foster

When Alice fell down the rabbit hole, her reality became alternately hysterically funny and terrifying. “She ate a little bit,” wrote Lewis Carroll of Alice, “and said anxiously to herself, ‘which way? which way?’ holding her hand on the top of her head to feel which way it was growing.” Up or down? Comedy or tragedy?
Today, 150 years after the birth of Alice and on the other end of the fossil fuel age, we’ve slipped down the natural gas pipeline. We’ve taken a whiff of the methane, which makes a person dizzy, weak, clumsy, and, eventually, lose consciousness and suffocate, and it’s unclear which way we’re going.
Little is as divisive in this country at the moment as natural gas. The President loves it, the Energy Secretary promotes it, the Environmental Protection Agency is scared to regulate it, and public radio inhales money from the industry and exhales advertising. It’s hard to “think about it” when they’re so…dizzy. Meanwhile, millions of people upwind of the emissions are, with full consciousness, marching, rallying, and speaking, bringing suit, promoting laws, and generally raising Cain against fracking, the spectacularly polluting method of extracting natural gas from the earth.
In spite of a ban on fracking, methane has come here to Vermont too, making people weak, clumsy, and partially conscious—Woozy in Wonderland.
“It’s a poor sort of memory,” said the White Queen to Alice, “that only works backwards.” Many people are stuck with a memory of natural gas as clean and abundant. In Carroll’s time, when methane oozed out of the ground virtually unaided, yes, the fossil fuel was relatively clean. But times have changed. Unless we work our memories forward we’re susceptible to believing past analyses apply to the present. As candidate for lieutenant governor, Dean Corren said recently, “The bridge fuel argument [for gas] may be 20 to 30 years too late.” We must catch up to reality. If running is a metaphor for averting the worst of climate change, the Queen of Hearts describes our 21st century predicament to Alice perfectly: “My dear, here we must run as fast as we can, just to stay in place. And if you wish to go anywhere you must run twice as fast as that.”
The gas extraction process is so dirty and the methane is such a potent greenhouse gas that only in Wonderland would a gas company, such as Gaz Metro/Vermont Gas Systems (GM/VGS), be allowed to advertise its environmental benefits. Like the Cheshire Cat, those benefits disappear, like gas, into a self-satisfied grin. Our state even gave GM/VGS a permit based in part on the deceptive and fading grin of environmental benefits.
GM/VGS recently admitted, “natural gas is a fossil fuel,” but “believes that natural gas is a sustainable fuel source.” A fossil fuel can rightly be described in many ways, including “the engine of industrial society,” but only in Wonderland can a finite fossil fuel be called “sustainable.” “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast,” the Queen proudly told Alice.
The utterances of GM/VGS’s Eileen Simollardes on the Public Service Board witness stand on Sept. 26 were also impossible to believe. No, she says, we are not asking for a blank check to build this pipeline. And, yet, no, she says, we will not put a cap on the cost of this project; we will take whatever we need. Simollardes did not appear to appreciate opposing counsel’s suggestion that the payoff for this project could take at least 32 years, that the $121.6M project would actually cost ratepayers $270M, that customer rates would have to go up 15.2% to cover the cost, and so on. GM/VGS’s shifting and illusory numbers remind me of the Mock Turtle’s four branches of Arithmetic: Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision.
Would that we could yell, like Alice did at the Knave of Heart’s absurd trial, “You’re nothing but a pack of cards!” to GM/VGS, the PSB, and the Department of Public Service, and wake up from this dream of grotesquery.