On climate: One step forward, two steps back?

The York Dispatch - Opinion

By Larry Schweiger and Josh McNeil

December 10, 2015

Last month, President Barack Obama ended seven years of protests and political posturing by rejecting TransCanada's application to build the Keystone XL pipeline, which would have sent dirty, corrosive tar sands oil across the U.S. over critical aquifers through the “bread basket” states to bunker fuel refineries along the Gulf of Mexico. Obama rightly noted that rejecting the pipeline application was synchronous with U.S. efforts to combat climate change, and sent the right signal ahead of critical climate talks at COP 21, the U.N. climate conference currently underway in Paris.

Americans can breathe a sigh of relief at the president's actions as they applaud him for killing a project that would have harmed our environment while bringing few permanent jobs or economic benefit to the U.S.

And yet, here in Pennsylvania, the storyline is record-setting wells being drilled in the Utica Shale, a dry-gas formation in western Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio and the West Virginia panhandle whose yields could dwarf those of the nearby Marcellus Shale formation and inundate the market with natural gas. Along with that continued, even accelerated, fossil fuel extraction come harmful impacts to public health as our air and water quality are not immune to the ravages of this inherently industrial activity.

How, and when, will we get a handle on climate change if we move away from fossil fuels such as coal on a national level yet double down on extractive industries here in Pennsylvania?

A better scenario for Pennsylvania would be to move with deliberate speed to a zero-carbon economy that relies on clean energy and energy efficiency to power our future. Countries such as Germany and China are miles ahead of us in this regard, with clean energy in Germany having reached grid parity – it costs no more to generate electricity from solar panels than to buy it from a utility. China will add 18 gigawatts of solar this year, nearly matching America’s total installed 20 gigawatts in just 12 months. Conversely, in Harrisburg, our politicians will not even commit to raising our Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard, which asks that we generate a puny 8 percent of our energy from clean, renewable sources.

Meanwhile, ignoring methane leakage rates, gas industry lobbyists tell politicians that we will be better off with gas than with coal. They are promoting massive investments in new gas-powered electrical generators and extensive infrastructure including statewide pipeline projects for gas export. It’s a little like Coca-Cola saying Pepsi causes cavities.

Capital investments would be far better deployed in moving full speed ahead toward a clean energy future. Smart money investors are already realizing that the cost curves of both solar and lithium battery storage point to a fast-approaching moment when their combined costs will find grid parity with natural gas. Solar power with battery storage will soon fall below the cost of electric energy from gas-fired power plants, and this new reality will disrupt fossil-fuel generation investments and strand untold assets in the traditional energy sector.

The reality is that this capital investment shift will not happen overnight, which is why we applaud the Environmental Protection Agency for issuing rules that will curb carbon and methane pollution and, hopefully, help forestall the worst impacts of climate change. Here in Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Wolf has signaled that he will extend the EPA's mandate by addressing methane emissions from existing sources of natural gas pollution in the state. As we are the second-largest natural gas producing state in the nation and home to thousands of methane-spewing oil and gas wells, we must act and we applaud the governor's resolve in the face of spurious assaults from industry lobbyists.

Pennsylvania has little choice but to do its part by embracing a profound shift in how we generate and use energy. Clean energy and energy efficiency will be the hallmarks of a better future. It makes both economic sense for our citizens and environmental sense for the planet. Gov. Wolf can lead us there, but we all must speak up if we expect Pennsylvania to be a welcoming home in the near term and for future generations.

Larry Schweiger is president and CEO of PennFuture and Josh McNeil is executive director of Conservation Voters of PA

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