Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Climate Change Impacts in Pennsylvania and the Benefits of a Clean Energy Transition

Pennsylvania House Democratic Policy Committee Hearing
Testimony of Thomas Schuster
On behalf of the Sierra Club
Regarding: Climate Change Impacts in Pennsylvania and the Benefits of a Clean Energy Transition

       I             Introduction

My name is Thomas Schuster and I am a Senior Campaign Representative with the Sierra Club in Pennsylvania.  The Sierra Club is the oldest and largest non-profit environmental advocacy organization in the United States, with approximately 24,000 members in Pennsylvania.  My testimony today will address misperceptions about the cost of confronting climate disruption.  Not only is inaction on climate disruption much more costly than mitigating it, but a transition to a clean energy economy will actually create jobs and savings on balance.

     II.            The Need for Action to Address Climate Disruption

The costs of failing to adequately deal with climate disruption, caused mainly by carbon pollution, are immense.  By the end of the century, the northeast as a region is expected to see an additional 57 days per year (nearly 2 more full months) of temperatures over 95 degrees.[1]  This will have severe consequences on our health, our economy, and the infrastructure and natural systems on which we all depend.  Higher average temperature leads to worse air quality, and in turn more hospital admissions and premature deaths, particularly among children.  It leads to the spread of vector-borne diseases that were once only problems in the tropics.  It leads to more frequent intense storms, which can damage our homes and threaten our lives with high winds and flooding.  It also threatens our economy.  A 10-year flood in Allegheny County costs over $8 billion to clean up,[2] and that is money that can’t be invested in growing our regional economy.  These damages will only become more severe if we don’t curtail carbon pollution.  Agriculture currently employs more people in Pennsylvania than extraction of coal, oil, and gas combined.[3]  The sector is projected to suffer from extreme heat, droughts and storms, and could shed many thousands of jobs.  These are but a few examples of the impacts that will touch every aspect of our lives.

It has been recently estimated that allowing global average temperatures to rise by 3 degrees Celsius, rather than 2 degrees (which we are already very likely to experience), will reduce annual economic productivity by 1% per year.[4]   This equates to over $6 billion per year in lost productivity in Pennsylvania.  That is from a one degree differential; even higher temperatures are quite likely if no additional action is taken, and the economic losses would accelerate.  It has also been estimated that every decade of delay in taking action to reduce climate disrupting pollution increases mitigation costs by about 40%.[5]

Pennsylvania makes an outsized contribution to climate disruption.  Pennsylvania is the source of about 1% of global carbon pollution,[6] despite comprising less than 0.2% of the world’s population.  While it is true that neither Pennsylvania nor the United States can solve the climate disruption problem on our own, it is also obvious that due to our disproportionate contribution to the problem, our national leadership on the issue is necessary if we are to reach an international solution, and Pennsylvania will be a key part of a national solution.

  III.            Meeting Clean Power Plan Requirements

On June 2, 2014, the Environmental Protection Agency introduced a proposal that would limit, for the first time, the carbon pollution from existing power plants.  The draft rules for Pennsylvania require a reduction in carbon pollution intensity (or pounds of pollution per MWh of electricity) by 31% between 2012 and 2030.

We are well on our way to meeting this target, according to our internal analysis.  Coal power plant retirements that have occurred or been announced since 2012 will achieve at least 14% of the required reduction.  Our existing energy efficiency requirement for utilities, if continued at current levels, will achieve an additional 14%, while the Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards will achieve more than 23% of our requirement.  Together, these three tranches get us more than halfway to Pennsylvania’s goal, just by maintaining the status quo.  If we increase our clean energy requirement to 20% per year by 2020, and our efficiency target to 1.5% per year, we would achieve about 96% of our required reduction.  These higher targets would merely put us on par with most other states in the northeast.

  IV.            Benefits of Clean Energy and Efficiency

In addition to reducing carbon pollution from the electric sector, efficiency and clean, renewable energy offer numerous other benefits.  I want to focus on the benefits of renewable energy specifically, because it is often misunderstood.

a.     Renewable Energy Reduces Electricity Prices

Numerous studies have shown that addition of renewable energy into the electricity mix causes the most expensive, least efficient fossil fuel generators to operate less, which lowers electricity cost.  Most recently, it was found that the eleven states with the highest amount of wind energy installed have seen electricity prices decrease slightly since 2008, while in the remaining states, the price of electricity has increased by nearly 8% over the same time.[7]  A Pennsylvania-specific analysis of a hypothetical doubling of our renewable energy targets projected that savings from price suppression would outstrip direct costs by a factor of at least 2:1.[8]

b.     Renewable Energy is Reliable

Already, the states of Iowa and South Dakota get more than 20% of their electricity from wind power, but we can go much farther than that.  PJM, the operator of the regional grid, has concluded that we can get at least 30% of our energy from wind and solar by 2026 with no reliability problems, minimal changes to the transmission infrastructure, and net savings on wholesale energy prices.[9]  The non-partisan Regulatory Assistance Project reviewed eleven studies by respected firms and concluded that renewable energy levels well over 50% are feasible given current technology.[10]

Supporters of coal often point to the extreme cold snaps of January 2014 as a reason to continue reliance on coal.  Putting aside for the moment the fact that a polar vortex is a predicted result of rising artic temperatures and melting polar ice that will increase in frequency with warmer global temperatures, it must be noted that coal did not perform particularly well during that time.  In fact, while 22% of the total generating capacity in PJM territory was unavailable during the most critical time, over 1/3 of that total (13.7 gigawatts) was coal capacity.[11]  This included the largest coal-fired power plant in Pennsylvania, the Bruce Mansfield Generating Station.  According to a May PJM report, only two types of resources performed better than expected during this extreme event: demand response and wind power.[12]  Beyond PJM, wind power was also critical to preventing blackouts in the Midwest and in Texas during the polar vortex.[13]

c.      Renewable Energy Creates Jobs

Numerous studies have also shown that clean energy investments create more jobs per dollar spent, per megawatt of capacity, and per megawatt-hour of generation than comparable investments in fossil fuels.  There are already more workers in the solar and wind industries in this country than there are in the coal industry, despite coal being responsible for a much larger share of the current electricity mix.[14]  It has been projected that a transition to a 100% clean energy economy in Pennsylvania by 2050, including maximizing energy efficiency, would create half a million 40-year jobs, which is more than 10 times the number the coal industry currently supports.[15]  Widely distributed sources of energy also offer important tax revenue streams for rural towns and communities, helping keep schools, libraries, and firehouses open.

We recognize that even though the transition to cleaner forms of energy will be a net benefit to the Commonwealth, there are some coal-dependent communities that will be disproportionately impacted by this transition.  We support an effort by leaders at the federal, state, and local levels to work to understand the needs of these communities and their workers, and to develop fully funded programs to aid in the transition.  We cannot afford to postpone the transition to cleaner energy, but we also cannot put all the impacts on the shoulders of a few while the rest enjoy the benefits.

Thank you for your time,

Thomas Schuster
Senior Campaign Representative
The Sierra Club
PO Box 51
Windber, PA 15963
(814) 467-2614

[1] http://riskybusiness.org/report/overview/regions/northeast
[2] National Conference of State Legislatures, Assessing the Costs of Climate Change, http://www.ncsl.org/print/environ/ClimateChangePA.pdf
[3] US Bureau of Economic Analysis, 2012 statistics
[4] Multiple sources, cited in The Cost of Delaying Action to Stem Climate Change, July 2104: http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/docs/the_cost_of_delaying_action_to_stem_climate_change.pdf
[5] Id.
[6] 2009 Pennsylvania Climate Change Action Plan.  The 2013 update to the plan did not calculate our share of global emissions.
[8] Black &Veatch, “Assessment of a 15 percent Pennsylvania Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard”: http://pennfuture.org/UserFiles/File/Legislation/HB80SB92_Report201001.pdf
[12] Id. at 20
[14] AWEA U.S. Wind Industry Annual Market Report 2010; Solar Foundation National Solar Jobs Census 2010; U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Monday, August 25, 2014

It’s Electric!

From September 15th to the 21st, the country is going electric. Why? The third week of September celebrates the fourth annual National Drive Electric Week. It’s a nationwide celebration to increase awareness of today’s widespread accessibility of plug-in vehicles. To emphasize the benefits of all-electric and plug-in hybrid-electric vehicles, test-drive events and other related activities will be held in cities from coast to coast and abroad. Approximately 100 cities and 30,000 people participated in 2013. This year, 113 events are registered in 39 states. National organizers including the Sierra Club, Plug In America, and the Electric Auto Association are teaming up with local groups across the country to bring you the best event possible. 

Plug In America president Richard Kelly stresses, “…you do not have to have an electric car to take part in National Drive Electric Week. That’s the point—to introduce [electric vehicles] to prospective buyers who haven’t experienced the thrill of instant torque and a quiet, clean ride, right past the gas station.”

Benefits of going electric:
-Fun to drive
-Less expensive
-More convenient to fuel
-Better for the environment
-Promote local jobs
-Reduce dependence on foreign oil

National Drive Electric Week activities will vary by city. For more information on dates and times, click here. For city-by-city locations and details, visit driveelectricweek.org

You can also volunteer at a National Drive Electric Week event in your city, town, or school.

Hope to see you out! 

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Stay Up to Date: Pittsburgh International Turns to Fracking

The PA Chapter's official stance on this issue is a moratorium on new leasing. However, we would like to open this up for discussion. Fracking at an airport is a unique case--no residential concerns. The fiscal benefits are numerous but in Pittsburgh's case, they are its saving grace. Please respectfully share your thoughts and opinions on this topic.  

Friday, August 8, 2014

What the Frack?

There has been much hubbub about fracking the past few years. Documentaries and impassioned celebrities have brought much needed attention to the issue. Environmental classes now explore the process and its ecological impact.  Political figures boast of the economic improvement it could bring to their constituency. Everyone ostensibly has a definitive position on it. However, for me at least, hydraulic fracturing remains somewhat of an enigma. Controversial issues such as these present moral dilemmas that often coincide with fiscal constraints and political agendas.

It’s always difficult for me to choose who I fight for. Both sides make appealing arguments that require pragmatism and research to reach a decision. I want to fully comprehend every angle of the matter so I can make the best judgment.
I’ve recently done a bit of Internet sifting and I’ve found various articles that help me get a better glimpse of the fracking situation. Here is what I’ve found:

According to the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, the Pennsylvania Department of Health is referring callers with complaints of illness due to fracking to the Bureau of Epidemiology whenever buzzwords such as “fracking”, “Marcellus shale”, or “drilling” come into play. It frightens me when health concerns no longer interest our Department of Health. The ethical dilemma involved is the integrity of the department—are they living up to their mission?

NPR (one of my most trusted sources in a sea of unreliable, biased sources) reported last week that oil and gas operations have contaminated Pennsylvanian water supplies 209 times since the end of 2007 (paywall). However, no statistics were given on what companies were involved, what pollutants were discovered, or why these problems transpired. In fact, even the health complaints were not made public unlike in other states that have experienced similar fracking incidences. After reading other articles, there seems to be a trend—no public information.

From my position, the gas industry seems tremendously secretive sitting on top of all this information. Without releasing information, these companies can easily suggest the lack of evidence supporting the health effects that manifest from fracking. From my findings, I see the need for more regulatory measures. Even if fracking was not a health or environmental issue, there still needs to be more accountability and transparency between the public and the shale gas industry.

Currently, House bill 2318 that provides, “a mechanism for implementing citizen participation under the state Environmental Rights Amendment” (the PA Sierra Club chapter director, Joanne Kilgour vocalized this at a hearing) is currently being evaluated. This bill will “empower citizens to have input and some control and discretion over what happens on state lands.” I believe this bill is a baby step in the right direction.

Although I have found information that makes me extremely wary of energy companies and I am the intern of one of the largest environmental grassroots organizations, I still have to acknowledge both sides of the battle. There is no panacea for both the businessmen and the environmentalists. They both have to make concessions and fight to win their cases. That is not to say there is no solution. I think practical measures can and must be taken to inform the public about the risks of fracking, and the answer lies in stricter regulation and greater industry and governmental transparency.

My opinions on fracking continue to grow as I research more. There is a wealth of information about hydraulic fracturing on the web that is expanding and is free for the taking. Please take advantage of this information and feel free to share your thoughts on fracking. We would love to hear your stance on the issue!

Credit: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Opinion: Free Market Capitalism

By whatever name you wish to use- free market capitalism, market economy, or neo-liberal economics- our current economic system glories in greed, is without moral or ethical constraint, and feels that there should be no constraints on its ability to externalize its costs. If we don’t radically change the way we operate our economic system, there no hope that a biosphere that can support us and our fellow creatures will long endure. Chris Hedges has written “a consumer culture based on corporate profits, limitless exploitation, and continued extraction of fossil fuels is doomed.”

From Barbara Kingsolver we read that “global commerce is driven by a single conviction: an inalienable right to earn profit no matter the human cost.” Many believe that profit without any limits or constraints is the business of commerce in our society. This is the economic system which now dominates the planet. Unless the environmental community is willing to confront directly this system, there is no hope that we will be able to sustain a planet which is hospitable for humanity and our fellow creatures. We as a species are as much in danger as the polar bear. They may succumb sooner than us, but the direction we are now heading will seal our fate.  

We cannot win the battle to defend, protect, and restore the planet unless there are fundamental changes in the way we conduct business. Multinational corporations operate across all boundaries with little restraint. We now live in what Ralph Nader calls a “soft-fascist state” as the corporations dominate and control much of our government and its agencies. Corporate power and money dominate all levels and branches of government. Recent rulings by the Supreme Court clearly demonstrate corporate dominance.

We are confronted on an unlimited number of fronts. While we like to proclaim those few victories we gain, they are seldom permanent and of a limited nature. As long as we have an economic system which values trashing the planet for profit more than preserving it, there is no hope of any real victory. We will be confronted with an endless number assaults to our land, air, and water. Private profit is now valued more than public health and equality. If we are ever to make real progress in protecting the planet’s biosphere from constant assault, we must make fundamental, structural changes in the way our economic system functions.

The environmental community has by and large fought to protect the environment by supporting government regulations. The regulatory system we have built will always be inadequate to solve the real problems we face. It is a system which gives permits to profit seekers to pollute. Regulations are of little value when they are not enforced. The revolving door between government regulatory agencies and those who are to be regulated is always spinning. Corporations always fight any new regulations from the formulation of the law to the writing of the regulations. There powerful lobbying efforts always ensure that any proposed regulation will be weakened. They always exploit the loopholes which always seem to be present.

We shouldn’t be surprised when we hear of the latest report of corporate misconduct. GM’s ignition switch immorality should not shock us if we remember the firebomb Ford Pinto’s of the past. The current fight to eliminate neonicotinoid pesticides is a clear example of the evil nature of our present system. The honeybees that do the pollinating for many of our crops now have populations which are in collapse. Scientists have determined that the most likely cause of this situation is the use of the pesticides known as neonicotinoids. Yet the industry fights any regulation and the EPA is failing to remove them from use. Rather than the industry proving the safety of their products before subjecting all life to their use, we must prove they are dangerous after much damage has been done. We certainly have it backwards. Profit trumps humanity.

The environmental community to this point hasn’t had the gumption to take on our economic system. The big groups may be too comfortable operating within it. I wonder if environmental groups fear the loss of financial support more than the destruction of the environment.  Are they afraid that they will be labeled socialist or un-American? Patriotism has nothing to do with political ideology, waving flags, supporting President’s world adventurism, or singing patriotic songs. Patriotism means working to make our country the best it can be for all of our fellow citizens and protecting the public health which is dependent upon a healthy environment protected from a destructive economic system.

I understand that taking on our economic system is almost incomprehensible in the scope of its challenge. Taking on specific threats is a challenge that is within our grasp. Even in the huge challenge that climate change presents, we still believe it is the possible within our current economic system. But we have been fighting to significantly lower CO2 emissions for over 30 years and the clock is rapidly running out. It amazed me how jubilant environmental groups have been with the new rules for power plant emissions of CO2. I’m not saying we shouldn’t be happy with this, but let’s face the reality that in the total picture of things this is but a very small step. The same president who supports this rule is pushing the fracking of natural gas almost everywhere.

We need a cultural and economic change that embraces the principal that business can no longer be conducted at the expense of our health and the health of the biosphere. The cost of our goods must reflect their real cost. We need a new type of capitalism which requires more than just a profit motive. The following are some possible cures to the problems created by the cowboy capitalism that now rules the planet:

  • Corporations are not people and therefore are not entitled to the rights of citizens. They only have those specific rights created by legislation.
  • Corporations should be prohibited from making any political contributions either directly or through front groups like trade associations or think tanks.
  • Polluters should pay a tax for all pollution with increasing rates with volume and with time. A carbon tax is but one example. Dumping waste into the environment must no longer be free.
  • All producers of goods must provide for their recycling and up-cycling after the products use has been completed.
  • All lobbying done by profit making entities must be open to observation by neutral observers such as a member of the press. Full transcripts should be available.
  • The corporate charter of all corporations should include the proviso that corporate operations may not in any way detract from the common good.  We must revoke the charters of all corporations which put their profits ahead of the good of society.
  • The exploitation of human labor must as well as the exploitation of the planet must lead to revocation of a corporations charter.
  • When a corporation is guilty of violating the law, those officials responsible must go to prison.
  • When a suit is settled out of court between an individual and a corporation, the corporation may not hide behind non-disclosure agreements.
  • Excessive profits should be taxed at increasing rates.
  • Corporate profits should be taxed at a fair but unavoidable rate.
  • All advertising aimed at children must end.
  • Individuals who gain income from investments should pay income taxes at the same rate as everyone one else. People who must labor for a living should not have to pay taxes at a higher rate than those who gain income without working.
  • The “cautionary principle” must be applied in the development of all new products.
  • The right to clean water and air must be established in the Constitution.
  • Advertising must be held to a strict level of factual accuracy.

Jack Miller, Vice President
Sierra Club PA Chapter