As Pa. emerges from shutdown, climate activists see parallels and opportunities

By: - May 8, 2020 7:18 am

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With 24 Pennsylvania counties set to take the first, tentative steps out of lockdown on Friday, environmental groups say they see parallels between the disruptions caused by COVID-19 and the potential for more climate-induced large-scale disruptions.

“For years, the environmental justice community has been saying that climate change affects everything,” Karen Feridun, co-founder of the Better Path Coalition, a statewide group focused on climate action, said. “We’ve talked about the massive disruptions to life as we know it that lie in store for us if we fail to act on climate.

“Now we are seeing what a major disruption to the system can do, and do quickly,” Feridun continued. “The pandemic is showing us how interconnected we all are as we operate within a system that is fragile to the point of being unjust and unsustainable. What is happening now will pale in comparison to what we will have to endure if we fail to learn from this experience.”

The Better Path Coalition, along with the Natural Resources Defense Council, are hoping that Pennsylvanians and policy makers will see the opportunity to address climate change head-on as the state gradually opens up.

“We have the opportunity to do better,” Feridun told the Capital-Star. 

Better Path would like to see rollbacks on climate policy and regulatory protections stop and more action from the state government post-pandemic. 

In addition to opposing a bailout of the Marcellus Shale industry and fighting the rollback of Department of Environmental Protection’s regulatory oversight, Better Path is continuing its call for state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler, to be removed as chair of the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee and the Climate Change Advisory Council. 

“There’s no room in our government for people who are determined to move the wrong way on climate,” Feridun said. “Even [state House Speaker] Mike Turzai should understand that.”

Whether those policy and social changes actually occur following the pandemic, are anyone’s guess. Feridun said the Better Path Coalition is working to ensure the state’s return to normal isn’t a return to business-as-usual when it comes to climate policy. 

“We’re holding weekly webinars for anyone who would like to join to keep information flowing and to have discussions about what the next steps are,” Feridun said.

Mark Szybist, the Washington D.C.-based Pennsylvania Policy Director for the NRDC, agrees with Feridun that there is an opportunity to make needed changes as the country emerges from the shutdown with a fragile economy. 

“I think the fact that we will basically need to rebuild our economy presents an opportunity,” Szybist, a Williamsport native, said. 

Prior to Pennsylvania’s COVID-induced shutdown, natural gas producers were hit with a 37 percent decrease in the price utilities pay for gas, according to Pittsburgh Quarterly. 

In late April, the price of crude oil went negative for the first time ever, amounting to -$37.63 a barrel. 

While the decline in demand for crude oil was a consequence of COVID-19’s global economic shutdown, Szybist said he “wasn’t surprised” that prices have gone as low as it has, adding that oil and gas, both capital-intensive markets, have to produce more in order to pay investors, whether the demand meets the supply or not. 

Meanwhile, Szybist says he hasn’t seen a significant change in how Pennsylvanians view climate and energy policy. 

With a Democratic governor and a Republican-controlled General Assembly, Szybist said a fundamental shift in climate and energy policy in Pennsylvania is “hard to imagine,” but he remains hopeful. 

“The tools are on the table in Pennsylvania already,” Szybist said. “We’re not going to achieve that shift just through environmental policy. We need to create change in other areas, too.“ 

The NRDC, Szybist said, is creating a “vision” that combines environmental policy with other policies to help create a sustainable, economically secure plan. 

But with the COVID-19 pandemic closing offices and shutting policy makers away from the public, the NRDC has had little success gaining an audience. 

“It’s hard to talk to people about what energy policy should look like going forward,” Szybist said.  

After a strong start to energy and climate policy in the early 2000s with the Keystone Energy Efficiency Alliance of 2008, and the Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards Act of 2004, Szybist hopes that Pennsylvania policy makers will be remorseful that the last decade has seen little progress in terms of climate and energy policy. 

“We’re hopeful that Pennsylvania policy makers will start to see the last decade as kind of a lost decade,” Szybist said. “We were taking steps toward a clean energy economy. … and then fracking arrived.”

While the state emerges from the grips of the COVID-19 pandemic, Szybist said political change will determine much of the progress made on climate and energy policy. 

“You need political change to develop political will,” Szybist said. “This is the time to do that.

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Cassie Miller
Cassie Miller

A native Pennsylvanian, Cassie Miller worked for various publications across the Midstate before joining the team at the Pennsylvania Capital-Star. In her previous roles, she has covered everything from local sports to the financial services industry.