VT Digger | December 9, 2015 | Column by Jasper Craven

Vermont protesters interrupted Gov. Peter Shumlin at an international climate change conference in Paris on Wednesday, calling on the governor to reverse his position on allowing fracked natural gas to be transported in Vermont.

Aly Johnson-Kurts. Photo via Twitter.

Protesters held a sign reading “Fracked Gas = Climate Change” and Vermont climate activist Aly Johnson-Kurts implored Shumlin to “Reverse your position, now!” during a meeting at the United Nations Climate Change Conference. Shumlin supports the proposed Vermont Gas Systems pipeline from Colchester to Middlebury.

“As we move off of coia–cal–coia–oil, coal and other renewables, and we move to renewables,” Shumlin stammered after the interruption, seemingly flustered.

“I worked for Gov. Shumlin in 2008, but I didn’t vote for him in 2014 because of his support for the fracked gas pipeline,” said Johnson-Kurts, who is the communications director for the Vermont-based group Rights and Democracy and is the press secretary of the US Youth Delegation to the climate talks.

“Our state banned fracking in 2012, citing health concerns and risks to water safety,” she said, “but we know that fracked gas buildout, including pipelines, ties us to a future of fracking elsewhere. This project is incompatible with a true clean energy plan for Vermont.”

Shumlin is in Paris at the invitation of the White House, and traveled to France on Sunday for the UN conference. He touted Vermont’s work in scaling back carbon emissions and ramping up renewable energy production.

Shumlin said Wednesday he disagreed with the message of the protesters and that it didn’t make a difference.

“Nobody noticed,” he said.

In a video of the protest obtained by Vermont Public Radio, Shumlin attempted to gain back control of the event, telling Johnson-Kurts that “I know your Mom and Dad and I know they taught you better manners than this,” adding “you’re missing classes back at Smith (College) that you’re going to get in trouble for.”

Later, speaking to Vermont reporters on a conference call, Shumlin said: “My view is that they share our sense of urgency.”

The governor then shifted the discussion to the goals of the climate conference, and said American leaders are pushing hard to secure a deal by Saturday.

“For the first time in history, the United States of America is not the skunk at the garden party,” Shumlin said, noting that Secretary of State John Kerry proposed doubling climate aid to struggling countries on Wednesday.

He said developing countries need financial subsidies from countries like the United States to help lower emissions and build efficiencies into infrastructure and transportation.

“The developed countries have a responsibility to help,” the governor said.

Shumlin said he has been telling Vermont’s green energy story and is picking up ideas for Vermont from other world leaders.

He said the Green Mountain State is leading the world in its commitment to building a renewable energy economy and reducing carbon emissions. But he acknowledged that in Vermont “we don’t have such a great story to tell in terms of transportation.”

He pointed to Norway’s subsidies that encourage more efficiency in transportation, where more than one-fifth of new car sales are of electric vehicles. The country has removed taxes on electric vehicles, as well as charges for tolls, ferry rides and parking for efficient automobiles, according to The New York Times.

“I have never seen a bigger commitment by world leaders to actually move the dial on our emissions as we are seeing here,” Shumlin said.

The good news, the governor added, is that the talks appear to be making progress.

“Nobody has walked out,” he said.

Besides the confrontation by protesters in Paris, Shumlin is also facing criticism back home. Vermont Republican Party chairman Dave Sunderland has issued a number of open letters to the governor criticizing his trip to Paris. The party chair said the trip was unnecessary when everyday Vermonters are struggling.

“Do you feel attending this conference instead of focusing on our state’s stagnant economy, declining affordability and plummeting workforce is the job that Vermonters narrowly elected you to do just over a year ago?” Sunderland asked Wednesday.

The party chairman pointed to a number of pressing state issues, including a $40 million budget shortfall in the Medicaid budget this year and persistent technical issues with Vermont Health Connect, that should have precluded Shumlin from attending the Paris conference.

Sunderland also suggested Shumlin should have participated in the climate talks through video conferencing.

“You’ve frequently touted the state’s telecommunication advances — you should be taking advantage of them now,” he said.

Sunderland finished both letters by offering a list of questions regarding the Paris trip. They included how much carbon pollution would be produced from it, who would be paying each expense and if Shumlin would be bringing any friends or relatives on the trip.

Shumlin did not directly address Sunderland’s concerns, but spokesman Scott Coriell issued a blistering response to Sunderland’s, advocating the importance of the climate change summit, and Shumlin’s attendance.

“Climate change is real. It’s depressing that in 2015 I have to make that point to you, but given your history of climate change denial I feel compelled to,” Coriell replied to Sunderland. “Lucky for you, I know a guy who will be with some of the world’s leading climate scientists next week. I will ask him to bring back some literature for you to read.”

Coriell also pointed to a United Nations press release stating all carbon emissions from the conference would be offset by the French government. Carbon offsets are typically made through financial contributions to climate change organizations.

Coriell said Shumlin’s travel and lodging was paid for by Georgetown University, which also paid the expenses for Agency of Natural Resources Secretary Deborah Markowitz. No personal friends or relatives are on the trip, Coriell said.

On Tuesday, Coriell compared Sunderland to national Republicans who he said have not offered solutions.

“They are against me, they are against the governor, they are against Democrats,” Coriell said. “But it’s not enough to be against something, you have to be for something.”

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