Commentary

Without action on climate change, Hurricane Ida is just the beginning | Opinion

Without swift and substantial action to reduce both methane and carbon emissions, we’re on a dangerous track to deadlier and more frequent natural disasters

Storm clouds over Pittsburgh, Pa. (Photo via Flickr Commons)

By Joseph Otis Minott

The recent devastation caused by the remnants of Hurricane Ida in Pennsylvania is historic. Seven tornadoes touched down in the region, with record flooding that left portions of the Vine Street Expressway in Center City completely under water. At least four people died in Bucks and Montgomery counties.

The Schuylkill River was the highest it’s ever been since 1869. But Ida’s records may not stand for long. Make no mistake, there is an increasingly obvious answer as we all ask ourselves “why do these crazy weather events seem to keep happening?” This is one clear marker of the devastating and worsening impacts of climate change, and severe weather events like this will become the new normal unless we act now. It’s time for Pennsylvanians to urge elected officials to take meaningful actions to significantly curb greenhouse gas pollution.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is still assessing the damage in our region, but already it’s clear that the losses are staggering.

Approximately 800 homes were affected, with half being destroyed or severely damaged. Hurricane Ida was predicted to be a Category 1 storm, but quickly grew to Category 4 as it moved across the Gulf of Mexico. The above-average temperature of the gulf gave Ida added strength as it reached the shores of Louisiana and moved north.

Scientists have pinpointed rising sea surface temperatures, particularly in the Atlantic Ocean and the gulf, as the cause of these tropical storms becoming major weather events when they hit land.

Pa. General Assembly votes to extend Wolf’s Hurricane Ida disaster declaration

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, our oceans are absorbing more heat as greenhouse gases are trapping more energy from the sun. Many of the world’s leading climate scientists believe that reducing methane emissions is the fastest way to slow global warming and stave off these unprecedented natural disasters.

As the second largest cause of global warming, methane is an extremely potent greenhouse gas with up to 87 times the warming power of carbon dioxide over a 20-year period.

The oil and gas sector is the largest source of methane emissions in the United States, and much of Pennsylvania’s methane emissions come from our extensive fossil gas infrastructure (well sites, compressor stations, and processing plants).

Methane leaks during every stage of gas extraction, processing, transmission, storage and end use. As the second largest gas producing state in the U.S., Pennsylvania cannot ignore the growing calls for methane emission reductions coming from leadership in our country and around the world.

In response to the destruction of Hurricane Ida, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf has taken critical short-term actions, including signing a proclamation of disaster emergency, which was approved by President Joe Biden on Sept. 11.

While the relief will help communities rebuild in the aftermath of the storm, the state must also ensure protection from natural disasters in the long term. There’s good news and bad news.

The good news is the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has proposed methane control standards to cut emissions from existing sources. The bad news is those proposed rules currently exempt tens of thousands of wells from any common sense inspections.

Pa. set to enter northeastern initiative limiting carbon from power plants

All wells need inspections because all wells leak methane, even those that produce relatively little gas. Pennsylvanians must urge DEP to strengthen its proposed rules by closing the low-producing well loophole, then finalize the rules without delay.

Pennsylvania is also a significant source of carbon dioxide pollution, the leading driver of climate change, and has the fifth-dirtiest power plants in the county in terms of carbon pollution.

Again, there’s good news and bad news. DEP has advanced a strong regulatory program that will dramatically cut carbon pollution from power plants and allow Pennsylvania to participate in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) beginning in January 2022. That rule-making is nearly at the finish line. The bad news is the Republican-controlled legislature has been pulling out all the stops to block the program and protect the fossil fuel industry.

RGGI puts a price on carbon pollution and offers power plant operators a choice: either find cost-effective ways to reduce emissions or purchase sufficient allowances to cover their emissions. The supply of allowances declines each year to ensure pollution reductions.

Currently, 11 northeast and mid-Atlantic states are linked with RGGI and have cut their power sector emissions in half since 2009 while growing their economies at a faster pace than the rest of the country.

If Pennsylvania participates in RGGI, it’s projected to reduce up to 227 million tons of carbon pollution by 2030 and stands to receive hundreds of millions of dollars in annual proceeds from the program.

After flash floods, Wolf calls on feds to lower thresholds for assistance | Friday Morning Coffee

Wolf has laid out plans for those funds to be invested in improving energy efficiency in Pennsylvania and providing direct support to regions that will be impacted by the transition away from fossil fuels.

It is now up to Pennsylvania residents and voters to urge their state lawmakers to vote against the myriad anti-RGGI bills moving in the legislature (SB119, HB637, and concurrent resolutions of disapproval in both the House and Senate).

Instead of fighting tooth and nail to block progress, the General Assembly should push for the implementation of Pennsylvania’s RGGI-compatible program as quickly as possible.

Without swift and substantial action to reduce both methane and carbon emissions, we’re on a dangerous track to deadlier and more frequent natural disasters than the historic event we’ve just seen with Hurricane Ida.

Joseph Otis Minott  is the executive director and chief counsel of Clean Air Council. His work appears frequently on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. He writes from Philadelphia.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.