A Philadelphia activist who’s been fighting SEPTA for years over a natural gas generator.
A Southwestern Pennsylvania environmentalist who lives near ground zero of the state’s fracking boom.
And an Erie union member who works for a rail manufacturing company that laid off hundreds last year.
They’re all part of a coalition of Pennsylvania climate activists and progressive groups pushing President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats to go big as Washington debates Biden’s $2 trillion jobs and infrastructure proposal. Biden last week also pledged to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030.
It’s a big moment for activists, who are flexing their muscles amid a rare opening for meaningful action on climate change and investments in a green economy. They hope to also change climate and energy politics in Harrisburg, where Republicans control the legislature and the natural gas industry wields significant clout.
“My hope is we’ll come together and be a force that creates a long-term climate agenda for Pennsylvania that’s strategic and grassroots-based,” said Michaela Lovegood, deputy executive director of Pennsylvania Stands Up, an umbrella of progressive groups across the state.
It helped organize a town hall last month about the THRIVE agenda, a sweeping economic and climate plan. Federal legislation supporting the agenda would spend $10 trillion over the next decade to create 15 million jobs, aggressively fight climate change, and advance racial and economic justice.
Some 170 people participated in the town hall, representing groups that focus on issues as varied as immigration, criminal justice, and public transit. The diverse coalition underscores how activists increasingly see climate inequities — like pollution in Black and brown communities — as deeply intertwined with racial and economic disparities.
It remains to be seen whether Congress even considers the THRIVE Act, whose supporters have described it as a “down payment” on the Green New Deal championed by progressives like U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D., N.Y.) and assailed by Republicans as socialism.
Beyond legislation, the agenda will be a litmus test for Pennsylvania Democrats running for U.S. Senate next year, Lovegood said.
Democrats may be unable to pass any climate legislation given their slim majorities in Congress. But the relatively smooth passage of Biden’s $1.9 trillion relief bill last month showed how the pandemic has changed the politics of massive government spending.
That’s exciting to activists, many of whom have been pleasantly surprised by Biden’s approach.
“It’s really important for folks to recognize that we are long overdue for … a great turning to a green economy,” said Nicolas O’Rourke, Pennsylvania organizing director for the left-wing Working Families Party.
The push comes after a confluence of factors that helped elevate climate change as a Democratic priority over the last several years: Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign, grassroots organizing mobilized by Donald Trump’s presidency, and the election of young politicians like Ocasio-Cortez.
Consider Paula Paul, a 79-year-old organizer with the Philadelphia-based interfaith group POWER. Paul, long focused on promoting jobs and higher wages, didn’t always associate with environmental advocates.
“I thought it was mostly groups of white people, and they’re worried about sea life and birds and dolphins and whatever,” said Paul, who is Black.
Her perspective started to change in 2016 when SEPTA approved plans for a $26.8 million generator to help power commuter trains. The transit agency said the plant would produce cleaner energy than the power grid it relied on, but opponents warned it could expand the market for natural gas.
Of more immediate concern to Paul was the proposed location: the Midvale bus depot in Philadelphia’s Nicetown section, which already contributed to high levels of pollution in the low-income, predominantly Black neighborhood.
“Wherever you look and find depressed neighborhoods for Black and brown people, you’re going to find that climate also impacts them,” said Paul, who lives near Nicetown.
Opponents challenged SEPTA’s air permit but lost. The plant has been operating since January, according to a SEPTA spokesperson. POWER last month asked the Environmental Protection Agency to investigate whether the city violated federal civil rights laws in granting the permit, and an EPA spokesperson said the agency is reviewing the matter.
In the opposite corner of Pennsylvania, activists are drawing support from people like John Miles, a member of the United Electrical Workers who works at Wabtec Corp.’s locomotive manufacturing plant in Erie.
Wabtec has laid off hundreds of workers over the past year, as orders for rail parts dropped amid the pandemic. The decline of the coal industry also sapped demand for freight rail, costing jobs and previewing what could come without a “just transition,” said Miles, a member of Local 506′s executive board.
“A Green New Deal that encourages increased transportation of goods and people by rail will reduce carbon emissions, and it will also preserve and create good union jobs like ours,” Miles said during last month’s town hall.
But some union leaders are concerned by Biden’s plan, saying that even if skilled workers get jobs in industries like solar, they won’t pay as well or require as much work as a fossil fuel plant.
Biden has tried to counter that, announcing his jobs plan at a Pittsburgh union hall. His plan would build 500,000 electric vehicle charging stations by 2030, build and rehabilitate energy-efficient homes, and update the power grid to make it more resilient to climate-related disasters.
Advocates are also eyeing Harrisburg. The fracking boom that began in the mid-2000s helped make Pennsylvania the second-largest producer of natural gas in the country behind Texas — heating homes, creating jobs, driving down energy costs, and reducing emissions.
But while natural gas emits less carbon dioxide than other fossil fuels like coal, leaks from wells release a more potent greenhouse gas, methane, into the atmosphere.
The Republican-controlled legislature has blocked Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s efforts to tax drilling, and most Democrats continue to offer at least some support for fossil fuels. Last year, for example, an overwhelming majority of the legislature passed, and Wolf signed, a bill that authorizes up to $670 million in tax breaks over 25 years for manufacturers that turn natural gas into fertilizers and petrochemicals.
The law, touted by proponents as a major job creator, won support even from some progressives — including State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta (D., Phila.), now a Senate candidate.
And after Democrats last year flopped in their bid to take control of the legislature, a sprint to the left on energy seems unlikely.
Still, progressives see signs of change. For one thing, they’ve been winning more elections in the past few years, especially in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. They point to public opinion polls that suggest fracking isn’t nearly as popular as Trump’s repeated attacks on Biden made it seem.
And if Biden can deliver on his jobs plan, he may provide a template for state-level change.
“Often a lot of these things change when you have a total demonstration of what is the power of renewable energy,” said State Sen. Nikil Saval (D., Phila.), who campaigned in part on a Green New Deal for schools and unseated a Democratic incumbent last year. “It’s a little bit abstract when Biden talks about green energy jobs. Not a lot of people have seen them in their daily lives.”