Climate Change

Can We Really Afford the Affordable Clean Energy Rule?

This contribution to our What’s on your mind? blog series was written by Alexandra Cheek, a CCJ intern and geology student who is finishing up her degree at California University of Pennsylvania:

It seems as if the current administration has found its replacement for the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan in the Affordable Clean Energy Rule. Before I get into the details of how this plan may affect the country, here’s a little background:

  • On August 3rd of 2015 President Obama announced the Clean Power Plan (CPP).

    • The goal of this action was to provide “...strong but achievable standards for power plants, and customized goals for states to cut the carbon pollution that is driving climate change, the Clean Power Plan provides national consistency, accountability and a level playing field while reflecting each state’s energy mix.”

    • The plan provided a model for states to cost-effectively lower emissions to the standards, with the option for states to submit their own plans with EPA approval.

    • The EPA welcomed comment from states regarding how to finalize a single plan types that would be best or every state.

  • On March 28th of 2017 Trump signed an Executive Order on Energy Independence, putting the Clean Power Plan under review.

    • In October of 2017 the repeal of the CPP began and following public hearing it was finally repealed this past June and replaced with the Affordable Clean Energy Rule.

    • The goal of the Affordable Clean Energy Rule (ACE) is to “restore(s) rule of law, empower(s) states, and support(s) energy diversity”.

At the outset, the ACE plan actually sounds pretty great. I want my state to be empowered whatever that may mean, and energy diversity is great because there’s no single energy source that can provide sustainable and dependable energy to the entire United States. You can’t fault me for having a little healthy skepticism, though, considering the current EPA administrator Wheeler denies global climate change and previously worked as an attorney defending energy corporations.

The CPP was never actually enforced due to legal challenges, and the current administration is already facing its fair share: This week the Clean Air Task Force filed a suit on behalf of the American Lung Association and the American Public Health Association. These organizations’ biggest issues are with the increase in particulate matter that affects our most vulnerable populations, the children and elderly. The good news is that the EPA already has an obligation to protect these populations due to the Clean Air Act, the bad news is that they are redefining the standards. The Clean Air Act mandates that standards must reflect the best system of emissions reduction (BSER) for the pollutant; however, ACE has solved this problem by simply changing the BSER for power plants. The CPP used a few building blocks when it came to the BSER, one of which factored in the use of renewable energy. ACE, however, only uses onsite efficiency improvements as their BSER to establish emission standards, meaning that the emissions standard will be a lot less stringent. To put it into perspective, the goal of the CPP was to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants 32% below 2005 levels by 2030, while the ACE rule is only forecasted to lower emissions by 1.5 percent at the most compared to no regulation. CPP was also our first real step towards emissions reductions as part of the Paris Agreement, which despite what President Trump might declare, we are still a part of, and cannot withdraw until 2020 (thanks to Article 28 of the Paris Agreement).

Bottom line, I turn my lights on, I drive a car. I am all for people having jobs in the energy industry. I’m also for transparency when it comes to potential human health impacts. The whole reason the CPP was ultimately stayed in Supreme Court is because a handful of energy corporations and two dozen states argued that the CPP could not regulate the amount of greenhouse gases through the Clean Air Act. Most of this claim is a result of corporations stating that the changes they would have to make would force layoffs and do more harm than good. The CPP was aggressive in its plan, but maybe that’s an indication of just how bad of shape we are in with our emissions in the first place. Global climate change is like a cancer. It’s aggressive and requires an even more aggressive treatment plan. We can’t change what we did to get to this point but we have every opportunity to change how we proceed and minimize our impacts as much as we can. That won’t happen by lowering our standards and juking the stats so that we look like we’re doing a good job.


Why is equity important to discussions of climate change?

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This contribution to our What’s on your mind? blog was written by our Outreach Coordinator Lisa DePaoli, who has studied humans and ecology for quite a long time and earned her Ph.D. in ecological anthropology:

The ways that humans are being impacted by climate change include extreme weather events such as wildfires and flooding, stresses to food-producing systems, the spread of infectious diseases, and negative impacts on biodiversity and wildlife, security, migration, and public goods such as water. In short, climate change impacts people’s health, livelihoods, and homes and other forms of property.  

Furthermore, certain people are disproportionately affected by climate change, including low-income and minority populations and other vulnerable people who are at greater risk due to age, discrimination, health, and/or location. They may have less ability to move about, pay for damages, and rebound after setbacks. Communities of color and low-income communities face an increased vulnerability because of the compounded stresses of ongoing heat waves, poor air quality, flooding, and mental health stress.

People who are the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change are also those who are least responsible for causing it (for example, according to a study by Oxfam, the poorest 50 percent — about 3.5 billion people — contribute only 10 percent, while the richest 10 percent of people produce half of the planet’s individual-consumption-based fossil fuel emissions). Changes in weather patterns, sea level rise, and other impacts further exacerbate existing inequities. Therefore, we must integrate questions of justice in debates about the environment. Focusing on only one part of the problem, such as “jobs,” is like treating the symptom and ignoring the cause of this unequal effect (the underlying socio-economic factors of disadvantaged populations). Actions to address climate impacts and to reduce emissions should be considered in conjunction with broader equity issues involving livelihoods and a living wage, health, food security, and energy access. The wellbeing of people and communities must be at the core of climate action.

There is a lot of discussion of possible ways to address the problem of climate change. Unfortunately, many of the ideas that have been brought forward are top-down or trickle-down in approach (e.g., placing a tax on fossil fuels). With this approach, decisions are made by a few people in authority rather than by the people who are affected by those decisions, and solutions are framed by actions and policies that are initiated at the highest levels of government. However, it has been proven over and over again that top-down and trickle-down solutions do not work. This is especially true for systems-level problems like climate change, which involves the triple bottom line of sustainability: social and cultural factors, ecology/environment, and economics. We have to consider the effects of our actions, technologies, and livelihoods on the health of both people and the environment on which we depend.

Climate action and equity issues are integrally linked and can be mutually supportive. We need to ensure fair transitions for our workers, diversify our economy, and give power to frontline communities. Meaningful change will take an active and inclusive social movement, which will accelerate momentum for climate action. 


Petrochemical Disasters - Present and Future

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A massive fire at an Intercontinental Terminals Company (ITC) petrochemical plant in Deer Park, Texas took four days to extinguish but is still causing major health and environmental concerns. Tanks containing naphtha, xylene, and pygas caught fire, and air monitoring detected benzene, toluene, other VOCs and particulate matter in the air for a wide radius. (For more detailed coverage of the timeline, chemicals, etc, see this statement released by our allies at Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services.) On March 27, 2019, the Texas Department of State Health Services issued a warning not to eat fish caught in the Houston Ship Channel, a warning that was echoed by the EPA. Amid the crisis, ITC encouraged residents to submit any claims related to the incident to them; however, in the claims submission process, they included some fine print that stated once payment of a claim had been made, the claimant waived his/her right to sue. In the span of a week, residents of Deer Park and the surrounding areas were bombarded with crucial, and often conflicting, information, which can be exhausting in and of itself.

Watching this unfold via the news in Pennsylvania, it’s easy to watch and think “those poor people,” but also to have a disconnected view because we “don’t know them.” They’re not our neighbors. Texas isn’t culturally the same as Appalachia or Pittsburgh. We may have never even been to the state. But we do know the people who were impacted. They are people who have been impacted by extreme energy extraction, production, and use. They are people whose government is influenced by industry money. They are people who every day live with industry in their backyards, and who are far outmatched dollar-for-dollar by companies. They are people who want clean air and clean water - and more, they want to be able to trust when officials tell them that their air and water are “safe.”

In Appalachia, a massive petrochemical buildout is underway, a buildout meant to protect corporations from the climate change-related risks their infrastructure in the Gulf faces and to help gas and oil companies to hedge against the competition from renewables. This buildout is designed to produce polyethylene pellets that can then be used in plastics manufacturing - when we already have a crisis of plastics pollution. The fracking boom has already been changing our landscape for over a decade: presently, there are 1,696 active unconventional gas (fracking) wells in Washington County and 1,309 in Greene County, but petrochemicals will ensure that even more wells are drilled. The real impacts of this buildout on public health, entire economies, and the environment will be devastating - the petrochemical industry is already devastating many places where people have lived with it for longer than we have even been talking about it. Remember: cheap plastic is not cheap. We cannot breathe or drink money. No matter where we live.

Our allies at Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, a grassroots group, and Earthworks, a national group, have been doing great work to make sure people are informed and safe. Please click the links above to learn more about them and to donate if you can.


Can We Get to Zero Carbon? Panelists Weigh In

The coal industry has undeniable impacts on our communities but also on our global climate. It’s not alone.

The coal industry has undeniable impacts on our communities but also on our global climate. It’s not alone.

On January 29, StateImpact Pennsylvania and WESA sponsored an event at the Energy Innovation Center in Pittsburgh during which three panelists - Paulina Jaramillo, a professor of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University; Ivonne Pena, an energy analyst working with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory; and Greg Reed, a professor of electric power engineering at the University of Pittsburgh’s Swanson School - discussed the possibility of achieving zero carbon emissions.

Part of the panel’s discussion focused on differentiating between carbon emitted for electricity versus for energy systems such as heating homes and transportation. The panel referenced the decarbonization of electricity as “low-hanging fruit.” Currently, technology exists such that renewable energy sources like wind or solar could be responsible for turning lights on throughout the country, although getting that electricity to homes through the grid would require investments and major updates. However, we don’t have ways to operate airplanes, for example, on carbon-free energy sources. The panel stressed that new technologies would be needed to address all the needs of our energy systems.

This, from a policy perspective, creates two ideas to consider in moving forward. First, our current policies are often not written in a way that would allow for advancements in and uses of new technology. Batteries, for example, are not always included in policies aimed at bringing renewable energy sources into homes, despite the fact that batteries are required in most parts of the country to keep a consistent, reliable flow of electricity. Additionally, current policies aimed at going zero carbon almost always are tied to technology as opposed to goals, meaning that wind and solar are prioritized over other forms of carbon-free power generation that could work better. The panelists also stressed that carbon capture and sequestration technologies must be developed, not to offset use of high-carbon sources like coal, but to clean the existing carbon from the air: most climate reports indicate that not only do we need to go to zero on carbon emissions, we need to go negative.

As a CCJ staff member, it was difficult to attend this event without the opportunity to talk directly to these experts. When asked a question about the climate impact of methane emissions from the natural gas industry, one panelist basically said that “in no way is natural gas worse than coal.” However, because of the way industry is required (or not required, more accurately) to report their total methane emissions, we can’t know their true cost to our climate. There are far more regulations on the coal industry, and they have stricter reporting requirements. This panel, because it was focused solely on the climate perspective, ignored other impacts that the oil and gas industry has on communities: water quality, air pollution, and nuisance concerns were not addressed. Their claims that natural gas has a place in our energy and electricity systems moving forward because it can support a reliable system isn’t an unreasonable thought, but any idea that it must remain a part of these systems flies in the face of the climate and justice crises this industry helps perpetuate. And finally, there was a lot of focus on Pittsburgh being the innovator in natural gas and energy industries of all kinds but a failure to recognize the sacrifices made by workers and low income communities along the way. It is detrimental to speak so positively of the gas well transition as a positive step in renewable energy for communities hit by the gas industry; especially during a time at which the gas is being extracted for plastic production NOT energy.


Washington County Residents Take Action

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The People’s Climate March held by CCJ and Washington United on September 8th, 2018 in Washington, PA was a success!  Despite the morning forecast for potential floods and an all-day rain, over sixty (60) people attended. The people that attended marched around downtown Washington to express their concerns with the Climate, Jobs, and Justice.  Attendee’s stopped at both the Republican and Democratic Headquarters in hopes to provoke action from local legislators and let all candidates running that whoever wins must work for the people and not corporations.

Professor of Psychology at the California University, Ruben Brock and community members Laurie Maglietta, Briann Moye, Karen LeBlanc, Chris Ward and local children who face impacts all got a chance to voice their issues and motivate others during the March.  


CCJ and Washington United helped guide local community members to plan the March in hopes to build skills and develop leadership with our members.  These community members were included in all processes and planning meetings leading up to the March. We highly appreciate all of their work and effort!  



Going Solar!

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CCJ is now a partner at Solar United Neighbors of Pennsylvania, a group that helps develop and manage co-ops within communities so that people have access to solar energy at a more affordable cost. By joining together, community members are able to create a demand for a large amount products, which contractors can then order in bulk to save on cost. Because we are organizing within a geographic location, contractors also save time and money on travel, which results in an additional cost-saving for co-op members.

To get involved, join CCJ and Solar United Neighbors at an informational meeting on Wednesday, March 28 from 6:00-7:30 at W&J’s Swanson Science Center (Room 005).

For more information on Solar United Neighbors, visit their website or call our office at 724-229-3550.

Environmentalists want more action from Tom Wolf. More talk would be nice, too.

Photo credit: AP, Matt Rourke

Photo credit: AP, Matt Rourke

Marie Cusick | StateImpact 

Environmental groups are pushing Governor Tom Wolf to advocate more for green causes as the Democrat gears up for the final year of his first term and runs for reelection.

Wolf will deliver his fourth budget address Tuesday—the annual speech to the legislature that lays out his priorities.

Many environmentalists say his record, so far, has been disappointing.

Read more, and see comments from CCJ's Executive Director, here. 

Why CCJ Participated in Action at Southpointe to Hold Fossil Fuel Companies Accountable

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This past weekend, some CCJ staff, board members, and regular volunteers participated in the People Vs. Oil and Gas Summit as well as at an action in Southpointe. We want to take the time to share a little of what we learned and to explain our participation in the action.  

The Summit itself was an inclusive space where people from various backgrounds from across the country - and even Canada and the United Kingdom - joined in on an educational and collaborative weekend discussing our experiences with the fossil fuel industry and planning next steps to better work together to combat threats to our communities.  One way that CCJ hopes to become more involved in some of the bigger threats to our region is to begin working with groups in the area to stop the Royal Dutch Shell Ethane Cracker Plant in Beaver Co. While this may not directly affect us in Greene and Washington Counties, the increase in fracking in our communities will affect all of us. We also plan to share a wider variety of stories with you, our members and supporters, to help you be more aware of the scope of the environmental justice struggle in our country. We are working on building on the connections we’ve made to bring more solutions to the problems we face in Greene and Washington Counties.

The most newsworthy part of this past weekend was the action at Southpointe. The action, which was separate from the Summit, had two parts: a pre-approved march throughout Southpointe, which organizer Sarah participated in, and a blockade of a major road within Southpointe. In our communities fossil fuel extraction disrupts our lives every day. The noise produced from fracking can be stressful to the point of being unbearable, and no one likes being hounded by persistent and aggressive landmen to sign leases. When we’ve stood up for our rights in the past, we’ve done so where we live, and in many of those cases we were ignored because the people in the industry who make the calls that affect us so drastically do not live in our communities. The goal of this action was to show those in the fossil fuel industry what it’s like to spend your daily life in a place with constant disturbance. The march lasted for about two hours, and the road blockade was held for four hours before two activists were arrested - which was intended. On this one Monday morning the people working for these energy companies felt the same traffic impacts those of us on the frontlines of fracking and mining feel everyday.  

The rhetoric from the industry, of our being radicals and not basing our claims on facts or science, surrounding the action at Southpointe is not unexpected. But clearly it is not a “radical” concept that property owners should be able to make choices about their own land. It is not “inflammatory” to point out that our water has been taken away and polluted because of fossil fuel extraction. There are no “facts” or “science” to support the need to further develop fossil fuels; in fact, facts, science, and math would indicate that a transition to a renewable energy economy would be the best possible option for our country. As for Pennsylvania values, we suggest that the industry take a look at Article 1, Section 27 of our PA constitution.

We thank you for the support you’ve all given us in the past which allowed us to take on such visible roles in the Summit and the action. We hope you know that CCJ will always take on the fights that matter so much to our communities.

-Veronica and Sarah

P.S. Support our two friends who got arrested defending our rights by donating to their legal fund.

Emerging leaders in the fight against the climate crisis

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Fourteen hundred concerned community members came to Pittsburgh from October 17-19 for the Climate Reality Project Leadership Corps training at the David L Lawrence Convention Center. Throughout the three days, participants heard from scientists and other experts about the current science on climate change and the crisis that will happen if we don’t act now. CCJ staff members Veronica Coptis and Sarah Martik and board member Lois Bower-Bjornson joined hundreds of others specifically from the Pittsburgh region to learn more about the reality of our environment and ways to create progress.

In the grand debate on climate change, it can be easy to think of the problem as a massive global one, and not to see how it will affect our communities in a very real way. In terms of weather and the environment, Greene and Washington Counties are at a higher risk for flooding and stronger heat waves. In terms of public health, rising temperatures mean that ticks are becoming a greater issue, and the risk of contracting Lyme disease is greater.  The worsening flooding would put more stress on our sewage and water systems.  Our communities’ local economies are also directly impacted by the global shift to address the climate crisis and shift to cleaner energy sources. We collectively need to decide to enact policies that would prevent these kinds of problems from worsening and to diversify our economy. We also need to plan to deal with the consequences of inaction; however, during our current political times we cannot rely on our government.

One of the most important takeaways from the conference is that, while it is a global issue, climate change can be tackled at the local level, and doing so will not only prevent some of those drastic consequences but also help improve communities. It’s easy to think that jobs in manufacturing and maintaining solar panels or wind turbines would be the only source of new jobs in a renewable energy economy, but one of the strongest sectors for job growth will be in retrofitting existing buildings to meet higher standards for energy use and efficiency. These are jobs that will pay for themselves because of the savings on energy expenses over time, but they also are impossible to outsource. In the fossil fuel extraction legacy areas throughout our entire region, there is also the opportunity to create jobs by reclaiming sites that continue to harm our health and environment.

We face real problems, as was thoroughly discussed at the Climate Reality Project training, but we also have real solutions that would both protect the environment and boost the economy. It is up to us to shift the political will in the United States because a world where people have jobs and clean air/water is the best-case scenario for our community, country, and world.

The New Yorker: The Future of Coal Country

Bailey Mine Prep Plant (Photo Credit: CCJ)

Bailey Mine Prep Plant (Photo Credit: CCJ)

By Eliza Griswold, The New Yorker

One Sunday morning, just after deer-hunting season ended, Veronica Coptis, a community organizer in rural Greene County, Pennsylvania, climbed onto her father’s four-wheeler. She set off for a ridge a quarter of a mile from her parents’ small farmhouse, where she was brought up with her brother and two sisters. “Those are coyote tracks,” she called over the engine noise, pointing down at a set of fresh paw prints.

At the crest of the ridge, she stopped along a dirt track and scanned in both directions for security guards. Around her stretched a three-mile wasteland of valleys. Once an untouched landscape of white oak and shagbark hickory, it now belonged to Consol Energy and served as the refuse area for the Bailey Mine Complex, the largest underground coal mine in the United States.

Read full story at the New Yorker