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What the ‘death knell’ of fossil fuels means for Pennsylvania | Editorial

Preventing climate catastrophes will take work from cities like Philadelphia, not just from rural oil-producing counties.

The Philadelphia Gas Works service center in the 5200 block of Chestnut Street is pictured in West Philadelphia on Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019.
The Philadelphia Gas Works service center in the 5200 block of Chestnut Street is pictured in West Philadelphia on Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres did not mince words in describing the most recent findings by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which conclude that without swift and drastic action, the planet will suffer irreversible harm: “This report must sound a death knell for coal and fossil fuels, before they destroy our planet.”

Among U.S. states, only Texas produces more energy than Pennsylvania. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, in 2019 the Keystone State ranked second in natural gas production, third in the production of coal, and fourth in carbon dioxide emissions. In that year, the commonwealth handed out about $3.8 billion in fossil fuel subsidies.

» READ MORE: Pa. stymies Philadelphia green-energy plan to add biogas to PGW’s fuel

Pennsylvania has a lot of work to do to meet this moment, and tinkering around the edges just won’t be enough. To prevent the catastrophic outcomes that science warns are looming — thrown into relief by destructive climate-intensified storms like Hurricane Ida — the onus can’t just be on the western and northern parts of the state where oil and gas drilling is abundant.

The most straightforward way to follow Secretary-General Guterres’ instructions might seem to be closing the tap on fracking. But proponents of fracking often criticize that view, particularly from those who don’t live near drilling sites, as hypocritical.

They have a point — to an extent.

Philadelphia owns the largest publicly owned gas utility in the United States. Philadelphia Gas Works delivers more than 70 billion cubic feet of natural gas a year. In 2018, City Council approved a $60 million liquefied natural gas plant in South Philadelphia for PGW. The Philadelphia Board of Pensions still invests in fossil fuels, though the percent of the fund invested in energy has been decreasing.

» READ MORE: Business as usual for PGW is bad for consumers, the climate, and even PGW | Editorial

The administrations of Mayor Jim Kenney and Gov. Tom Wolf are taking steps in the right direction. On the city level, a study is exploring ways to transition Philadelphia Gas Works away from fossil fuels. September brings the first deadline for voluntary compliance with the city’s Building Energy Performance policy to reduce energy use in commercial buildings. On the state level, despite fierce Republican opposition, Wolf’s administration cleared hurdles to get Pennsylvania into the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative that would cut emissions significantly.

These are examples of laudable efforts, but they are not enough.

The solutions to climate change are often framed as divisive, picking winners and losers: rural vs. urban, environment vs. economy, the current generation vs. future ones. That is not accurate. By moving away from a reliance on extracting fossil fuel, rural economies won’t depend on fluctuations of global commodity prices and the whims of industry. Dramatically reducing emissions in the city will require renovating housing, schools, and offices — making them more comfortable, reducing utility bills across the board, and creating jobs.

Next year, Pennsylvania will elect a new governor. It’s essential that a discussion of the climate crisis be part of that race, and it’s imperative that the eventual incumbent demonstrate a vision to Pennsylvanians of what a rapid and equitable transition looks like — for every county, not just oil and gas producing ones.