‘Clean energy’ hub proposal a dirty deal for Pennsylvania environment and economy

     The Sunoco refinery in South Philadelphia sits on the bank of the Schuylkill River. (Emma Lee/for NewsWorks)

    The Sunoco refinery in South Philadelphia sits on the bank of the Schuylkill River. (Emma Lee/for NewsWorks)

    The idea of Philadelphia as a natural gas hub is controversial. Proponents say it would boost the economy and facilitate the city’s transition to “cleaner” energy. Opponents emphasize adverse ecological and economic effects, as well as the feasibility of alternative, sustainable energy sources. The commonwealth stands at a crossroad that could have serious, long-lasting, and irreversible repercussions.

    For the last several years, the oil and gas industry has been lobbying Pennsylvania legislators to expand the production and use of natural gas from the Marcellus Shale. Until recently, their efforts to include Philadelphia in these plans have been unsuccessful.  

    However, in December, the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce and Philadelphia Energy Solutions began gathering support when they pitched the idea of turning Philadelphia into a natural gas “energy hub.” Since then, the man at the center of the plan, Philadelphia Energy Solutions CEO Phil Rinaldi, has carefully cultivated relationships with important political figures, and also created an “energy action team” to help advocate for this proposition.

    The “energy hub” vision appears to be gaining traction among the political elite, including former mayoral candidates such as past Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham and state Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams, whose wife who works for the state’s industry lobbying group, the Marcellus Shale Coalition.  

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    Notably, the senator received considerable financial contributions during his mayoral campaign from the oil and gas industry and their super PACs. So did many other candidates who came out in favor of the proposal before the May primary election. Even Jim Kenney, who won the Democratic primary race and who has a reputation for supporting environmental protection in Philadelphia, has expressed approval of the idea.

    In spite of these endorsements, the natural gas energy hub proposal remains extremely controversial. Proponents say it would boost the city’s regional economy by creating jobs, and facilitate Philadelphia’s transition to “cleaner” energy. On the other side, environmental groups and activists emphasize the plan’s adverse ecological and economic effects, as well as the feasibility of alternative, sustainable energy sources.

    We must take these considerations seriously, because Philadelphia and the rest of the commonwealth currently stand at a crossroad that could have serious, long-lasting, and irreversible repercussions.

    The proposal

    The Marcellus Shale underlies 64 percent of the state. As of February 2012, more than 9,000 drilling permits had been issued, and more recent data indicate that over 7,500 wells have been drilled across the state. Thus far, the extraction of natural gas from the Marcellus Shale has been second hand to Philadelphia residents — the shale formation is located in the north and west parts of the State, so drilling occurs well outside of the city’s borders. However, the energy hub proposal would change that by bringing at least two new major pipelines to the city for the purposes of transporting natural gas to residents in southeastern Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey.

    The plan would also increase the influx of liquid natural gas by rail, result in the expansion of refineries located in the area and the building of new processing facilities, and potentially attract new petrochemical manufacturing to the region to use all of the new energy and processed materials. In short, the proposal would allow natural gas industrialists to create a terminal, where their product could be processed and exported, basically turning Philadelphia into the Grand Central Station for natural gas.

    According to Rinaldi and other proponents, the transformation would would boost the regional economy by revitalizing local manufacturing and creating jobs. Given Philadelphia’s current poverty rate and impoverished school system, more manufacturing jobs could ameliorate the city’s unemployment problems by offering low-skilled workers well-paying positions in the industrial sector. Rinaldi also boasts that these changes would attract additional business to the city, and, he seems to suggest that it would mitigate some of the urban blight caused by neglected industrial infrastructure.

    Additionally, considering that Pennsylvania is the third largest emitter of carbon dioxide in the U.S. as a result of its long history of coal mining, there’s the implication that a switch to natural gas would be better for the environment and help to reduce the Commonwealth’s substantial carbon footprint.  

    A bridge to nowhere

    Like oil and coal, natural gas is a non-renewable fossil fuel, and as such, it will not last forever. The oil and gas industry has attempted to quell concerns about this reality by marketing natural gas as  “bridge fuel” — an energy source to use until the infrastructure for sustainable technologies, like solar and wind power, can be implemented in the future. However, calculations indicate that natural gas is more akin to a very narrow and rickety catwalk.

    For example, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates that U.S. gas supplies will last only another several decades. As Forbes has pointed out, this projection does not account for environmental changes or increased demand and population growth over time. Consequently, the EIA’s initial assessment may grossly overestimate the current natural gas reserves.  

    Regardless of how long the supply can last, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has determined that, in order to avoid the most serious consequences of global warming, we need to cap the planet’s average temperature at no more than two degrees Celsius (or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above the current level. This requires the reduction of all greenhouses gases, including methane, which is released in the extraction of natural gas, to 40 to 70 percent lower than what they were in 2010 by the year 2050. This is a tremendous undertaking that creation of a natural gas energy hub will only impede.

    Risky business

    With that in mind, the energy hub visions is not only a bridge to nowhere, but also, a risky investment with uncertain economic payoff. To be sure, whenever natural gas runs out, the infrastructure built to support the energy hub will decline in value as people wake up to the reality of climate change. Moreover, those jobs created by the proposal would disappear, resulting in another cycle of job loss.

    As Temple University environmental law professor Amy Sinden notes, “Chances are high that in the next decade, energy markets (with some nudge from government regulation) will move rapidly away from fossil fuels in favor of renewable [energy like wind and solar power]. If that happens, those who have invested heavily in the production of natural gas and other fossil fuels will be stuck with stranded assets […].”

    In addition to this depressing prognosis, those touting the proposal’s economic potential

    seem to overlook the extreme dangerousness of the manufacturing jobs the energy hub might bring. Indeed, Dr. Poune Saberi of the Physicians for Social Responsibility describes jobs in oil and gas as having serious occupational hazards. A worker in the oil and gas industry is seven times more likely to die on the job than the average American worker.  

    The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) similarly acknowledged the dangers of working in this industry, and at one point issued a press release stating, “OSHA believes that the current general industry standards inadequately address the unique hazards encountered during drilling, servicing and the performance of special services operations on oil and gas wells.” All of this raises questions about the type of work the plan promises to bring to Philly.  

    Environmental consequences

    The plan also raises serious environmental concerns. The extraction of natural gas by way of fracturing shale rock formations (“fracking”) releases methane, among other pollutants, which happens to be the largest contributor to human-caused global warming after carbon dioxide. In fact, researchers at Cornell University reported in 2012 that the climate system is more immediately responsive to changes in methane emissions than carbon dioxide emissions.  

    They also posited that natural gas systems are the largest source of human-generated methane emissions in the U.S. — 40 percent of the total flux, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. So even though the energy hub plan might decrease carbon dioxide emissions by reducing reliance on coal, it would ramp up methane emissions, accelerating climate change.

    Natural gas extraction also pollutes water. Energy companies go to great lengths to seal off their gas wells when drilling, but leak are inevitable — and perhaps more so in Pennsylvania because of the many unknown, abandoned well shafts. According to Fred Baldassare, who worked at Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) for 25 years, new activity can displace pockets of gas in unplugged gas wells, and this eventually can lead to water contamination.

    Water pollution from natural gas drilling is well documented. In May, the New York Times published an article describing recent findings by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which reported the first case of a “complete story showing organic compounds attributed to shale gas development found in a homeowner’s well.”  Likewise, in 2013 The Scranton Times-Tribune published a story stating that the DEP “determined oil and gas development damaged the water supplies for at least 161 Pennsylvania homes, farms, churches and businesses between 2008 and the fall of 2012.”  

    Similar findings have been made in other parts of the U.S. where gas drilling occurs. A report from the Environment Colorado Research & Policy Center quantified the damage done by gas drilling.  So far, fracking operations in Colorado have generated 2.2 billion gallons of toxic wastewater.  Researchers predict that the numbers will only get worse if fracking continues unchecked.

    Finally, natural gas extraction contaminates the air with nitrogen oxides, which create smog, and other hazardous pollutants that can cause cancer and other serious health effects.  Evidence of this already exists in Philadelphia, particularly around the refinery in South Philadelphia, which, according to officials, accounts for more than 70 percent of toxic air emissions in the city, and nearly one-third of the region.

    Economic consequences

    Expanding natural gas extraction in Pennsylvania also could hurt other industries, especially in rural areas. As per an issue brief by Food and Water Watch, the contamination that results from fracking can have a negative impact on agriculture, and consequently, on consumer confidence.

    Pennsylvania is a worldwide leader in agricultural, food, and lumber production; it generates more than $4.3 billion in sales annually with its meat, poultry, and fish products; and its cattle serve as prime breeding stock for several countries. Pennsylvania is also famous for its dairy industry (most especially the beloved Wawa), which is one of the state’s fastest-growing sectors.  

    However, the increased contamination that would result from expanding natural gas production could put all of this at risk by causing consumers of these products to question whether they are safe.

    Viable energy alternatives

    It’s not all bad news — there is a viable alternative to turning Philadelphia into an energy hub without natural gas. As a matter of fact, in March 2013, Elsevier released a promising report on the feasibility of converting the state of New York’s all-purpose energy infrastructure to one using sustainable resources like wind, water, and sunlight (WWS). As reported in the highlights of the detailed publication:  

    The conversion reduces New York’s end-use power demand by ~37%

    The plan creates more jobs than lost since most energy will be from in state

    The plan creates long-term energy price stability since fuel costs will be zero

    The plan decreases air pollution deaths 4,000/year ($33 billion/year or 3 percent of New York’s GDP)

    The conversion of Pennsylvania’s and Philadelphia’s infrastructure into one powered by alternative, sustainable energy resources is likewise feasible and already underway. For instance, last year City Council passed a resolution committing Philly to the promotion of solar energy.

    As Matt Walker from the Clean Air Council and Jamie Gauthier from the Sustainable Business Network of Greater Philadelphia suggested in a January editorial published on this site, this resolution could be strengthened by increasing solar rebates and tying tax abatement for developers to energy sustainability in their properties. In support of this idea, their organizations launched a join solarization campaign in northwest Philadelphia that allowed homeowners to pool buying power to get solar systems at lower costs.

    Walker and Guthrie also underscored the positive economic impact these alternatives can have on our local economy, citing National Renewable Energy Laboratory findings that greater Philadelphia could install as much as 8,700 megawatts of rooftop solar power, “equivalent to about 25 percent of the region’s energy usage,” and equating over 20 years to “$1.3 billion annually in indirect economic benefits.”

    Perhaps more importantly with respect to our city’s current unemployment situation, “by 2035, [this] could annually provide more than 4,000 direct, well-paid [safe] jobs to local workers.” They further note an American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy report indicating that installation of energy efficiency and solar power technology alone “could spur the growth of at least 9,000 jobs in Philadelphia by 2025.”

    A city upon a hill

    As a city of so many “firsts,” Philadelphia has a legacy of innovation and inspiration. Today, it is at a crossroad with the capacity to choose to declare independence from toxic fossil fuels. It will not be easy, especially given the financial resources and political clout of those who have a stake in the oil and gas industry. However, as Neil deGrasse Tyson has remarked, we should summon the ingenuity and courage of the generations that came before us — though the dinosaurs never saw the asteroid coming, we don’t have an excuse.

    Notably, Pope Francis, who will be visiting Philadelphia later this year on his first trip to the United States as pontiff, is of the same opinion. In a recently issued, strongly worded encyclical on climate change, he called for everyone to be better stewards to the Earth. Emphasizing the interconnected nature of all of creation, he asserted: “Concern for the environment […] needs to be joined to a sincere love for our fellow human beings […].”  In other words, we must “[L]ove thy planet.”

    Let’s do that here in the City of Brotherly and Sisterly Love by saying no to the natural gas energy hub proposal and investing in sustainable resources instead.

    Andrea C. Anastasi is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and of Temple University Beasley School of Law. She currently works as an attorney, writer, and advocate in Greater Philadelphia.

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