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December 08, 2016
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Mired in fossil fuel

“Without targets for emissions reductions, incentives for cleaner technologies, or other clear policies, climate action plans will not achieve real reductions in GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions.”

—The Center for Climate and Energy Solutions

In 2009, Pennsylvania released a Climate Action Plan (CAP), which set a target of reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions 30% by 2020. Today, the state has a new, updated CAP (tinyurl.com/nbybxmo), written by its Department of Environmental Protection, and comments from the Clean Air Council of Pennsylvania sum up what many critics are saying, namely that the plan “provides no clear path to reducing GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions in Pennsylvania.” Not only does it lack a target number and date for reducing GHGs, but it also fails to meaningfully support the growth of renewable energy production within the Commonwealth, which have been relegated to the back seat behind fossil fuels. According to the Clean Air Council, “If you don’t count waste incineration and fossil fuels such as coal waste” as alternative energy, the “current requirement is only 8% renewable energy by 2021.”

Consider solar power, for example; “The only major state residential market [for solar] to shrink year over year was Pennsylvania, which fell from 17 megawatts (MW) in 2011 to 7 megawatts in 2012.” (Source: U.S. Solar Market Insight: Year-in-Review 2012 from GTM Research and Solar Energy Industries Association.) And while electric utilities around the country generally face a solar energy mandate each year, legislation to boost solar percentages in Pennsylvania has failed. On top of that, PA electric utilities may purchase 99.5% of their solar mandate from out of state, which does little to nothing to encourage production of more solar power at home. Wind energy production is largely in the same position.

While failing to prioritize wind, solar and other renewables, the CAP features ideas such as coal mine methane recovery, reducing methane leakage from natural gas infrastructure, support for waste-to-energy facilities (both farm, i.e. manure and biomass, and municipal waste), support for alternative fueled vehicles including, of course, natural gas, and general expansion of natural gas use. Every little bit helps in reducing CO2 emissions, but in our opinion there is no excuse for the CAP’s lack of strong support and investment in renewables.

It’s easy to see why Pennsylvania has opted for such a weak CAP; it ranks fourth among all states for coal production and third among all states for natural gas production. It ranks second only to Texas for total net electricity generation.

It also ranks third (behind Texas and California) for total CO2 emissions (www.eia.gov/state/?sid=PA), and therein lies the problem.

As we at The River Reporter see it, the Commonwealth’s failure to think long-term about its energy future is because its leaders are mired in short-term fossil fuel thinking. The CAP itself concludes: “Pennsylvania CO2 (carbon dioxide) emissions have fallen dramatically, in large part because Pennsylvania is generating more electricity with natural gas instead of coal.” It simply ignores research like the 2011 Cornell study arguing that unconventional shale gas, on a lifecycle basis, is even diertier than coal. The result is that, shamefully, Pennsylvania is the only state in the country to include fossil fuels in its Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard (AEPS), a regulation that requires the increased production of energy from alternative sources.

Last week the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), publishers of Science, released a new report and initiative to underscore how urgent it is for the public to know that 97% of climate scientists agree that human-caused climate change is real and that “We are at risk of pushing our climate system toward abrupt, unpredictable, and potentially irreversible changes with highly damaging impacts.” (See: whatweknow.aaas.org/get-the-facts/) including the potential for “massively disruptive consequences to societies and ecosystems as global temperatures rise.”

The AAAS report continues: “Waiting to take action will inevitably increase costs, escalate risk and foreclose options… The CO2 we produce accumulates in Earth’s atmosphere for decades, centuries and longer… [and] cannot be reversed from one generation to the next until there is a large-scale, cost-effective way to scrub carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Moreover, as emissions continue and warming increases, the risk increases.”

The clock is ticking for the world—and, yes, for Pennsylvania—to take meaningful action to mitigate climate change and to plan for how to adapt to its present and future consequences. Pennsylvania is mired in fossil-fuel thinking, and its citizens deserve a far better Climate Action Plan that looks to the long-term and not to the short-term, a CAP that looks to the future, not to our carbon-based past.