One day, two hearings: Fossil fuels shift climate change messaging; Dems show rift on green transition

Lawmaker noticed new tone from industry, but Democrats' climate issues on display

  • Rachel McDevitt

Natural gas and coal boosters across Pennsylvania logged on to video meetings Wednesday and told Democrats and Republicans in the state legislature that: Yes, there is a bright future for fossil fuels.

The two hearings on the same day underlined a couple of divides.

One was between policymakers and scientists who say we must move to low- and no-carbon power sources to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

Another was between members of a party that says it wants to tackle climate change.

The House Democratic Caucus lists climate change as a priority, but more than half of a two-hour hearing on “21st Century Energy Jobs” featured speakers on natural gas and coal.

Zach Smith, external affairs manager for CONSOL Energy, offered the House Democratic Policy Committee a new vision of coal, saying “this is not your grandpa’s coal company.”

That’s even though coal has been largely displaced by natural gas over the last decade.

Smith noted CONSOL is working on a power plant that would trap 97 percent of emissions, a venture with the U.S. Department of Energy to try to make carbon capture and storage technology more feasible.

Fossil fuels will even help address climate change, according to Jim Welty. The vice president of government affairs with the Marcellus Shale Coalition spoke to the policy committee and to the Republican-controlled House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee.

He talked up natural gas’s role in bringing down emissions and producing plastics that make vehicles lighter and more efficient.

“We are part of the solution on every step moving forward,” Welty said.

Scientists disagree.

“It’s got to be a transition fuel. It can’t be the solution,” said Kenneth Davis, a professor of atmospheric and climate science at Penn State.

By replacing coal, natural gas has reduced emissions — but burning it still creates carbon dioxide.

To avoid the worst effects of climate change, scientists say we must reduce greenhouse gas emissions dramatically in the coming decade and eliminate them by 2050.

Davis said natural gas can be helpful in the short term, but there has to be a step where we stop burning it — or at least stop letting the emissions reach the atmosphere. Carbon capture and storage technology could help, but so far it hasn’t been cost-effective.

Rep. Danielle Friel Otten (D-Chester) co-chairs the Legislative Climate Caucus and attended both hearings.

“I was a little bit shocked to see the Democrats give a platform to the Marcellus Shale Coalition, I’m not going to lie about that,” she said.

But she said the tone from past hearings was different, in that fossil fuel representatives accepted that climate change is real and presents real risks. She considers that a step forward.

Still, there was a big disconnect between the presentations and where climate science tells us we have to go.

Rep. Greg Vitali (D-Delaware), the minority chair of the House environmental resources committee, said that’s because there are two factors challenging the party on climate: some members are from coal and gas regions, and labor unions typically aligned with Democrats want to preserve their fossil-fuel related jobs. That can make a conversation about how to transition away from coal and gas more difficult.

“Maybe they’re thinking, if we start talking about transition, it might appear like we’re giving up on holding onto these jobs, which they don’t want to do,” Vitali said.

He said it’s unlikely to hear a Democrat oppose a just transition for coal communities or protecting the environment generally, but each member might have a different idea of what that means. It comes down to what legislation is on the table and who supports it.

House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton (D-Philadelphia) said the policy committee hearings are meant to connect members with constituents’ goals. Wednesday’s hearing was hosted by Rep. Pam Snyder (D-Greene), who represents a coal- and gas-producing region.

McClinton said her party is the one that recognizes science and moves accordingly. But the fact is: fossil fuels have been important to Pennsylvania and there hasn’t been much investment in renewables. She said the caucus is focused on workforce development and sending the right message on climate.

“You know the one switch may never go off as we transition into the future. It’s probably going to be an either/or for a bit longer and then we will begin to see change, the way we see people with hybrid vehicles,” McClinton said.

Otten said, of her colleagues that support fossil fuels, she’s unlikely to change their minds.

But she thinks pro-business and pro-environment lawmakers can compromise, for example, in promoting solar energy development.

Aggressive moves from the Biden Administration might also create financial incentives.

Otten is hopeful that shifts in public opinion will drive the legislature to address climate change.

Though Democrats lost seats in the legislature overall last election, progressives focused on climate change gained seats within the caucus.

“I think, over time, you’re going to see people who just don’t want to hear this nonsense anymore,” Otten said. “We need to move forward.”

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