Why is the National Parks Service teaming up with PGW on a fossil fuel project in Philly?

The government’s ambitious rhetoric around climate is too often dangerously out of step with its own actions.

Independence National Historic Park, also known as Independence Hall. (National Park Service)

Independence National Historic Park, also known as Independence Hall. (National Park Service)

When we think about the federal government’s role in combating climate change, we tend to focus on policies, regulations, and international agreements. Yet, as one of the largest employers and landowners in the nation with a significant carbon footprint of its own, the government can do a great deal to slow the effects of climate change at its own facilities. Unfortunately, the government’s ambitious rhetoric around climate is too often dangerously out of step with its own actions. In fact, we’re seeing a perfect example of that right here in Philadelphia with a National Park Service (NPS) plan for a new fossil fuel project in our city’s historic center. The public deserves to learn more about this proposed project and why it’s needed before NPS and its partners move forward.

The NPS plans to proceed with a fossil fuel expansion project for the Independence National Historical Park that could potentially drive an immediate increase in methane and carbon emissions and commit it to 30 years of fossil fuel energy. There have been no public meetings and no public disclosure about any such plans over the four years the project has been under consideration. Clean Air Council, the nonprofit I run which works to protect everyone’s right to breathe clean air, has requested that NPS release more details about the project. We await that production.

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From what we can gather, the project is being built in conjunction with the Philadelphia Gas Works (PGW). In 2017, the NPS hired PGW to conduct an engineering study “to reduce energy consumption and protect the park’s historic buildings.” Supposedly, PGW was the only eligible and interested entity.  Conveniently, the study resulted in a decision to convert to consolidated onsite gas boilers built and serviced by PGW itself, despite no independent, third-party review.

This partnership has the real potential to increase carbon emissions and leaked methane, and may put off the adoption of zero-carbon solutions for decades. In addition, the fossil gas supply will travel through PGW’s antiquated system which, by PGW’s own admissions, leaks the equivalent of 1 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year. The increased emissions have the potential to add pollution to Center City and negatively affect countless residences and businesses in some of our city’s most trafficked areas.

The PGW contract remains a secret from the public. At no time did the NPS conduct any local community meetings or provide any opportunity for public review and comment. This would be unacceptable for any federal project, but is particularly troubling when associated with one of the most important historic sites in the country.

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President Biden and his administration have made bold, meaningful promises to address climate change, demonstrate openness to the public, and seek justice for underserved communities. None of these commitments have been reflected in the apparent dealings between NPS and PGW.  This project was commissioned during the Trump administration, and the response from the local NPS branch this year has so far been disheartening.

The evidence of climate change is all around us. Increasing droughts, floods, wildfires, heat waves, and hurricane devastation over the last year should dispel any doubt that we are facing a crisis driven by greenhouse gas pollution. We need to take every opportunity to curb this pollution on every level. If the proposed switch to PGW’s onsite fossil gas boilers is in the best interest of Philadelphia, NPS and PGW must offer the public more details on why that’s the case. Clean Air Council calls on the administration and the NPS to release their PGW carbon study, hold open community meetings, and offer real justification for this proposed fossil fuel project on Independence Mall.

Joseph Otis Minott, Esq. is the executive director and chief counsel of Clean Air Council.

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