Last month, seven environmental groups wrote a flawed letter to Philadelphia officials disparaging legislation I sponsored as counterintuitive to the city’s decarbonization goals.
In October, six Democrats, including two from the southeast corner of the state, joined our House’s 28 Republicans and lone independent in approving Senate Bill 275. It is a majority without a veto, for those who count.
Why? Because the objective of the bill is simple: it prevents more than 2,500 municipalities in Pennsylvania from prohibiting access to certain public services, such as natural gas or fuel oil. This will preserve consumers’ access to affordable electricity, wherever they live, and prevent a chaotic patchwork of regulations that will ultimately undermine statewide environmental and energy policies.
It also reaffirms what many local and state officials, including the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, already understand to be true: municipalities do not have the power to restrict energy sources.
What the bill does not do is prevent the Philadelphia City Council from pursuing its goal of retrofitting all public buildings to reduce emissions by 50% over the next decade. It’s not just about removing gas lines and oil tanks and installing heat pumps instead. Reducing electricity consumption – through improved windows, roofs and insulation – is also a crucial piece of the puzzle.
The aforementioned environmental groups have said that SB 275 will eliminate any hope that Philadelphia will achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. Which raises the question of whether the only way to achieve decarbonization is to indiscriminately ban public services deemed “dirty” and “wrong,” is that even a good plan? Isn’t there an old adage warning of the danger of putting all your eggs in one basket?
Prohibit specific fuel sources for the purpose of “clean energy” makes no sense in Philadelphia and beyond. First, clean energy is a misnomer. There is simply no such thing. Even if tomorrow we shut down all the coal and gas power plants in the world and launched a frantic campaign to install wind and solar farms in their place, we would need to cover around 1.8 million square kilometers of land and coastline to replace lost capacity.
And we would need fossil fuels to produce all those solar panels and wind turbines. Just as we need oil and gas to create and distribute nearly every product we use every day, from the medicines we take to the clothes we wear to the packaging we use to store our food. To assume that banning fossil fuels will only impact emissions and electricity prices is to ignore the complex web that is our economy.
Moreover, the city does not exist in a vacuum. It is connected to an extensive 13-state power grid called PJM, which handles the safe and reliable flow of electricity for 65 million people from Chicago to Washington DC and many places in between.
PJM operators ensure its network of transmission lines and generation facilities operate in tandem every minute of the day, preventing system overloads that could trigger massive utility outages and inflict untold suffering. millions of people on its territory. So if demand for electricity increases in Philadelphia, but environmental policies have forced fossil fuel power plants out of business, there are fewer reliable energy sources to bear the burden.
A similar story unfolded in Texas in February when an unprecedented winter storm froze generators and rendered solar and wind farms useless, leaving up to 4 million Texans without power and water. More than 200 people died in the chaos. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the state grid operator, promised to winterize its system to strengthen it against future storms, but the damage was done. The rest of the nation should take note: a diverse and robust network is critical to preventing system-wide disasters.
Which brings me back to the idea of banning access to fossil fuels. If we are willing to sacrifice our food, clothing, housing, and transportation, it could eliminate some carbon emissions in the United States. Globally, U.S. emissions are about half of what China produces on an annual basis, according to 2018 figures. Japan – would also take our place.
Then there are emissions from sources we cannot always control: volcanic eruptions, livestock, forest fires. Or the damage caused by human activity like deforestation and degenerative agriculture. Even though the United States has found a solution to every unsustainable practice that critics say contributes to climate change, the rest of the world’s major nations are not following suit.
So what do these bands really want from the city? They want officials to attack our carefully planned and managed electric grid, collapse our economy, and leave Pennsylvanians with higher electric bills, fewer jobs, and unreliable utilities. All with the goal of reducing carbon emissions that will be offset by the rest of the world, in perpetuity.
Protecting consumer energy choices means residents can sue “cleaner” sources of electricity if they want or can afford it, without punishing those who cannot. SB 275 is not about protecting special interests – what does a senator from Williamsport owe the Philadelphia Gas Company?
What matters to me is to promote a sound energy policy that does not leave others behind in the constant pursuit of ideological purity, no matter how impractical, impossible or harmful it is for the very people these politicians claim to help.
State Senator Gene Yaw of R-Loyalsock Township was elected to represent Bradford, Lycoming, Sullivan and Union counties and part of Susquehanna County. He is Chairman of the Senate Committee on Environmental Resources and Energy.