The prospect of Philadelphia as an “energy hub” has some seeing dollar signs and good-paying jobs. Others worry about the continued impact of fossil fuel use on climate and exploding gas pipelines.
StateImpact Pennsylvania has learned that Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania quietly brought both sides together for a series of meetings in an effort to find common ground.
However, the effort has stopped just short of building consensus.
Building a room
On December 5, 2014, Mark Alan Hughes was walking down Chestnut Street in Center City Philadelphia and as he passed Drexel University’s student center, he couldn’t help but notice the protestors.
Environmental groups were chanting and waving signs outside the building. Inside, business leaders were pitching potential investors on a plan to make Philadelphia a place where Pennsylvania’s abundant natural gas supply could revive the city’s manufacturing sector. That meeting was closed to the public and all but a handful of reporters. The protestors wanted their concerns heard about that plan’s impact on the region’s air quality and a warming planet.
Walking by, Hughes — the director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Kleinman Center for Energy Policy — thought both sides had good points to make. And that’s when he got an idea.
“Seeing so much mobilization on both sides of the issue inside that room and then outside on the sidewalk just made me more convinced than ever that it was unlikely to advance without some way of people actually talking to each other, not past each other,” he said.
The clash between industrialists and environmentalists is nothing new, but Hughes wanted to write a story with a different ending.
“In addition to building a room for the two shouting interests around this idea of an energy hub, we also wanted to build a room that had a larger number of interests,” he said.
Last fall, Hughes and his partners at Drexel University called the first meeting of the “Energy Vision Working Group.” Drexel officials did not respond to requests for comment.
About 15 to 20 people from the oil and gas industry, conservation, labor, economic development and energy efficiency groups sat together around a conference table at the University of Pennsylvania. They sat in alphabetical order by first name, which forced participants who didn’t know each other or came from different viewpoints to mingle.
The goal was to come up with a document laying out a shared vision for Philadelphia’s energy future. The universities and the participants would release that document to the public at a press conference in early 2016.
To keep the conversation candid, the discussions were held under what’s called the “Chatham House Rule” – meaning participants could talk publicly about their role in the group, but could not identify anyone else in the room.
“People were, for the most part, very courteous,” said David Masur, director of PennEnvironment. “There were very few raised voices. There was very little vitriolic discussion. People were very candid and I thought that was great.”
Also around that big conference table was Phil Rinaldi, CEO of the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery and the chief architect of the “energy hub” plan. A company spokeswoman did not respond to requests for comment, but Rinaldi talked about the meetings during a conference last fall.
“I have people saying, ‘Phil, you keep talking about natural gas as an energy hub here,’” he said. “‘What’s the matter with wind and solar?’ I’ve got nothing against wind and solar… But we’ve got gas every day for more than the next century here and we would be foolish not to recognize that gas.”
And that was the heart of the discussion.
Debating natural gas as a ‘path forward’
Hughes said the point was not to debate climate science or the whims of the energy market, but to get the group to agree on a portfolio that included natural gas, as well as alternative energy sources.
“That we could start with a certain mix and then, over time, say a time period of 35, 50 years, we could change that mix in a really intentional way to try to achieve maybe some other goals like climate goals,” he said.
After two meetings, the group began hashing out the idea of starting with natural gas as a “path forward” with more renewables to come later.
But that didn’t fly with some environmentalists like Joe Minott, executive director of the Clean Air Council. Minott said he is not naive to the fact most Philadelphians heat their homes with natural gas, but that he would have preferred the conversation start by dealing with climate change.
“We should be thinking first and foremost about energy efficiency, wind, solar and then how do we make up for the rest of it,” said Minott.
All we have is our position
Minott left the group before the third meeting. Masur followed.
“One of the challenges is the room was treated as if it were a level playing field and that then when you leave the room it’s a level playing field,” he said. “That’s not the world we live in.
Masur argues a nonprofit like his has more to lose from compromising than the largest oil refinery on the East Coast.
“All we have is our position,” he said.
After a fourth meeting in February missing some original group members, Hughes and the other conveners have put the process on pause. He said the group came close to creating a final document, but there are still no plans for that press conference.
Those who left the group say they would be willing to come back to the table in the future, which gives him some hope.
“No one and certainly not the conveners are asking people to not serve their interests in this compromise,” said Hughes. “The search is for compromises or agreements that can allow people to serve their interests.”
Meanwhile, this week, energy hub protestors – including members of the Clean Air Council – were back out with their signs to oppose a proposal by Philadelphia Energy Solutions to build a new terminal for oil tankers.