In the spirit of Brooklyn, the scene of tonight's Democratic presidential debate, it's time to honor a giant schmear of unadulterated chutzpah.
That honor goes to the energy czars of the Pennsylvania fracking fields. You know, the ones who have fought so long and so hard, and who've been so generous with their political-donation checkbook, to prevent the state from imposing the kind of severance tax that even right-wing states like Texas and Oklahoma impose on their drillers. Now Big Energy wants to crisscross our neighborhoods with new pipelines to bring natural gas from under the Marcellus Shale to international markets, where they can fetch bigger profits.
And they want Pennsylvania's taxpayers to use our sofa pennies to help them out.
Late last month, on the eve of a major conference on making Philadelphia a major "energy hub," my Inquirer colleague Andrew Maykuth wrote that its backers want to build a massive pipeline that would bring 3 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day to Philadelphia, home already to the largest oil refinery on the Eastern Seaboard.
"Early talks are underway with the Wolf administration about enlisting 'some kind of authority' to underwrite part of the pipeline, which would shift some risk to the public," he reported. "The authority then could re-market the capacity as demand develops."
The truth is that Pennsylvania doesn't owe Big Energy one thin dime, and in fact the state should think long and hard about what kind of energy hub Philadelphia becomes — if the city is to become an energy hub at all. That's not only because pollution from fossil fuels is endangering life on this planet as we know it, although that would seem to be a pretty damn good reason.
It is complicated? Sure. For one thing, the creation in 2012 of Philadelphia Energy Solutions — to save the ancient refinery by the banks of the Schuylkill River when extinction seemed at hand, saved about 875 well-paying union jobs of the kind we not only need, but need more of.
What's more, the argument for natural gas — and the fracking process that produces a lot of it these days — is that it's the cleaner fossil fuel when compared with oil or coal. Anyone who's sat behind a natural-gas-powered bus, as opposed to a diesel bus, can attest to that fact.
But the immediate pollution downsides to an energy hub are real. Right now, despite improvements to pollution controls, the South Philly refinery remains the city's largest source of stationary air pollution — nothing else comes close — including cancer-causing toxins such as benzene.
Already, massive so-called "bomb trains" of scores of oil-laden tank cars — the kind that have derailed and exploded from Alabama to Quebec — fight Sunday strollers for space on the banks of the Schuylkill, or cross the river on a bridge built during Grover Cleveland's first term in the White House.
The idea of new pipelines running past the crowded subdivisions of Southeastern Pennsylvania has already alarmed many residents — along with news of major pipeline spills in North and South Dakota, Arkansas and elsewhere.
Then there's climate change. Last month was the planet's hottest March on record — the latest in a Joe DiMaggio-like streak of monthly temperature records for a warming planet. Rapidly melting ice sheets in the Arctic and parts of the Antarctic are causing scientists to accelerate their doom-y prediction for rising sea levels, drought and other things that could bring climate misery to our children and their children.
Don't listen to me — listen to a "rocket scientist," NASA's former climate chief James Hansen, who abandoned pure science to become an activist, saying recently: "I still don't think that there's a realization that we're in an emergency."
Tell that to Philadelphia and its leaders. Do they really think it will help their branding of Philly as a hip destination for millennials when they're also trying to become the fossil-fuel capital of the East Coast?
But the big problem is — and this will come as a shock to anyone from Philadelphia — a lack of imagination and bold thinking. In hopping so easily on the Big Energy bandwagon, too many civic leaders aren't looking at the city's natural assets — including our world-class universities — that could make Philadelphia a hub for the "clean energy" boom that's creating jobs while actually curbing pollution.
Earlier in the decade, the feds picked the Philadelphia Navy Yard to launch a Consortium for Building Energy Innovation — and forward-thinking urban planners have long seen the city's vacant tracts of the last Industrial Revolution as a launching pad for blue-collar jobs around alternative energy. That's a real agenda for reinventing the city, but I guess it takes too much effort compared with asking Pennsylvania's taxpayers to help build a big, old pipeline.
This city can be an energy hub — indeed, it should be an energy hub...if they can get behind the right kind of energy. Or we can rush headlong into the easy, most shortsighted decision. Historic Philadelphia doesn't have the greatest history when it comes to making these kind of choices.