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We must stop relying on corporations to police themselves

By The Editorial Board

The Department of Environmental Protection announced that Shell Chemical Appalachia has settled its record air quality violations from March of this year with a $5 million fine to be used for community environmental programs like air monitors.

This sounds great, except it’s a relatively small recompense for the community impacted by these chronic violators. Shell’s profits topped out at more than $40 billion last year. What will more monitoring do when enforcement is this lax?

The fact that the plant began violating air quality standards almost as soon as it became operational shows the company was never concerned with following the law.

The entire planet teeters on the edge of an environmental crisis, yet people are still extending trust to proven violators like Shell and stalling on the importance of pollution reduction.

A report released in July by the Center of Climate Integrity stated local Pennsylvania municipalities will have to invest in more than $1.2 billion in HVAC costs by 2040 to keep classrooms at safe temperatures for students. The costs of resulting landslides due to climate change would cost upwards of $85 million in the Pittsburgh region alone.

“Two decades ago, Pennsylvania experienced an average of five extreme heat days annually, defined as days with a high temperature above 90 degrees Fahrenheit. By 2050, Pennsylvanians will be burdened with 37 extreme heat days annually,” according to the report.

If average global temperatures are allowed to rise above two degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels, the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk and Management says, the ensuing environmental damage could lead to “total societal collapse.”

Pre-industrial levels are the average global temperatures from before the year 1800 which is considered to be the beginning of humans emitting carbon on a large scale. This prediction is based on research from the United Nations and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and is why every nation in the world has pledged to reach net zero carbon emissions by around 2050 to keep average global temperatures from rising above 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2100.

An increase to 1.5 degrees would still be devastating, but it is currently the best-case scenario when considering the amount of carbon already emitted and how long it will take to transition to an energy system with zero emissions while maintaining our current standard of living. So the world has pledged to finally listen to scientists, but will we reach our goals?

Some states have joined in interstate compacts (contracts) to address climate change. One compact is the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). The RGGI is a cap-and-trade program that the state Department of Energy estimates could reduce Pennsylvania’s emissions by 90% by 2080 in the best-case scenario. Current Gov. Josh Shapiro has only offered tepid support for the RGGI as he included revenue that would be generated from the compact in his budget proposal, but has also expressed concern over job loss resulting from joining it.

The state government has to get serious about climate change and can start by joining the RGGI. Pennsylvania would be joining the rest of the New England and Mid-Atlantic states in doing so. These states have already seen a 50% decline in their emissions with continued economic growth, thanks in large part to the RGGI. The state must also invest significantly in renewable energy and sustainability.

As a country, or even through a piecemeal approach through state cooperation, we need to invest in solar, wind and nuclear power generation to cut emissions. We need to invest in electrified public transit. We need to retrofit homes to be more energy efficient. We need to stop relying on companies to police themselves, especially when they’ve demonstrated no capacity or will to do so.

We can see just how committed corporations are to transitioning to renewable energy by looking at Shell’s ethane cracker plant along the Ohio River in Beaver County. Shell states that it is fully committed to transitioning to renewables, but its actions say something different. Shell recently froze its investments in low-carbon energy. Interestingly, Shell, which is based in the Netherlands, was sued by several nonprofits for not transitioning fast enough. Shell lost and was ordered to cut emissions by 45% by 2030. Shell is currently appealing the decision with no changes in policy detected.

The wealth in the fossil fuel industry comes from the high demand for energy. That demand is not going to disappear with renewable energy and neither will the wealth. Renewable energy would provide just as many jobs as the fossil fuel industry.

Pennsylvania has a lot of work to do.

As of 2021, 52.7% of the state’s power generation came from natural gas and 12.1% came from coal. The largest zero-carbon energy source was nuclear power which accounted for 31.4%. Wind, hydropower, biomass and solar only accounted for 3.8% of power generation. These numbers need to increase dramatically and rapidly. When we think of the Herculean task that this would be, we think back to the New Deal and the many programs that put people to work building the infrastructure we still enjoy today. We have done this before and we can do it again.

We just have to want to do it.

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