Environmentalists boo as SEPTA Board OKs natural gas power plant in Nicetown

SEPTA’s monthly board meeting ended in contained chaos Thursday afternoon as a small cadre of environmental activists protested the board’s authorization of a proposed natural gas cogeneration plant near the Midvale bus depot in Nicetown.

Around 40 members of 350 Philadelphia came to the meeting to speak out against the now authorized $26.8 million, 8.6-megawatt combined heat and power facility SEPTA wants to power half of its Regional Rail lines.

According to SEPTA, the natural gas plant will save money and have minimal environmental impact on the neighborhood. The project won’t cost SEPTA a dime because it will be financed through the Pennsylvania Guaranteed Energy Savings Act, which encourages efficiency upgrades that pay for themselves over time through cost savings. Noresco, Inc., a Massachusetts-based company, will provide the capital for the project as well as an energy cost saving guarantee.   

SEPTA will be locked into the arrangement for the next 20 years—a period during which renewable energy will become cheap and plentiful, contends 350 Philadelphia.  

Members of the group planned a filibuster of sorts before SEPTA’s board voted on the proposal: dozens signed up to speak during the public comment sessions held first. Usually SEPTA asks the public to hold comments to three minutes; today, the limit was set at two.

Peter Winslow of the Pennsylvania Interfaith Power & Light, an interfaith environmental group affiliated with 350 Philadelphia, hoped some transit wordplay might sway the board: “We feel like we’re being railroaded in this decision, and that SEPTA is heading down the wrong track.”

But despite the puns and the prayers, there were no last-minute conversions among the SEPTA disciples.

After listening to public comments against the plant for about 20 minutes, Board Chairman Pasquale Deon turned to director Robert D. Fox, a named partner at the environmental and energy law firm Manko Gold Katcher & Fox. Fox represents Montgomery County on the SEPTA board.

Fox presented a lawyerly defense for SEPTA, arguing that the authority followed a fair and transparent process evaluating the gas plant that earnestly considered energy alternatives, complied with environmental regulations, and ultimately found it economically beneficial. Fox said SEPTA looked at both solar and wind power, but neither would provide enough power at the site. Additionally, neither source addresses the plant’s primary purpose: resiliency. The plant will be funded in part by federal funds provided after Superstorm Sandy to make infrastructure better equipped to handle natural disasters. If PECO’s power grid shut down for some reason, the plant should keep Regional Rail trains running.

SEPTA contends that the plant will reduce greenhouse gas emissions 41 percent by replacing the electricity purchased from PECO’s grid.* The gathered activists argued those figures ignore the emissions released during natural gas extraction.

Fox’s defense was unusual: At most meetings, the only thing board members ever say is, “Aye” after Deon calls for a vote. The meetings are mere formalities where debates and “nay” votes are unheard of. Usually, SEPTA senior staffers handle complaints from the public, often via a quiet one-on-one chat once the meeting adjourns. General Manager Jeff Knueppel did just that with representatives from 350 Philadelphia after a meeting earlier this year.

In addition to conversations following board meetings, SEPTA officials met on four separate occasions with members of 350 Philadelphia, according to Fox. SEPTA also held three community meetings on the plant before Thursday’s vote. Fox also noted that SEPTA is currently shopping around for proposals to build solar panels on top of many of its maintenance facilities, which might generate as much as ten megawatts of renewable electricity. The crowd interrupted Fox repeatedly during his remarks.

Fox began his argument by saying everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts. After presenting four select factors to assess the propriety of SEPTA’s course of action, Fox ended his argument forcefully. “Those are the facts and when I answer those four questions, the answer is yes to those four questions. So, in my opinion, this project should be approved for those reasons.”

At that point, 350 Philadelphia member Meenal Raval shouted, “And your name, sir?”

“…Robert Fox. It’s right there,” responded Fox, pointing to the name tag placard that is placed before every SEPTA director.

“It’s not legible—it’s too small,” said Raval.

With that exchange, Chairman Deon moved for a vote and the crowd erupted, crying foul and protesting that many in the public had yet to speak. Deon pressed on and the directors voted unanimously to approve the gas plant as boos rained down upon them.

The environmentalists said they would take their fight now to City Hall, where they hope to prevent SEPTA from obtaining building permits for the facility. Before the vote, 350 Philadelphia member Mitch Chanin read letters from council members Cindy Bass, Kenyatta Johnson, Helen Gym and Blondell Reynolds Brown that asked SEPTA’s board to postpone the vote. None of the legislators attended the meeting or sent staff representatives to read the letters on their behalf. Bass represents Nicetown and as they marched out of SEPTA’s headquarters, a group of the protesters told PlanPhilly they were heading directly to her City Hall offices.

After taking the vote, the SEPTA board and executive staff stood up and walked out of the room. Some of the activists chased after them, shouting, but immediately withdrew when SEPTA police officers walked over to direct them back.

Outside the boardroom, PlanPhilly spoke with Fran Kelly, assistant general manager of public and government affairs. Kelly confirmed that the board did indeed vote, both by hand and a voice vote that couldn’t be heard over the crowd’s shouts.

Back inside the boardroom, SEPTA Police Chief Thomas Nestel looked on as a line of environmental advocates continued to approach the lectern and rail against the gas plant. Everyone else had left, but the activists kept at it, condemning SEPTA in speeches to themselves.

*CORRECTION: This sentence originally said that SEPTA would be replacing electrcity purchased from PECO’s “dirtier coal plants”. Exelon Corp., PECO’s parent company, has divested itself from coal over the years and no longer uses coal as a power source. 

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