Free Penn State from Fossil Fuels – Direct Action Campaign

Longtime readers know that I don’t think much of the regulatory process; I regard it as largely captured by the regulated industries.

I do believe direct action can be an effective tool to bring about changes in policy. I see investigation as the first phase of direct action, when community members sort through the copious amounts of bullshit shoveled around the community by the entrenched power holders to find the nuggets of true facts and well-founded conclusions and educate ourselves about the actual situation (as contrasted with the  misrepresentations of public relations goons.)

I think we’re just about done with that first phase, and it may be time to move on to the next phase, with the sit-ins and lock-outs and other tools community members can use to compassionately inflict political pain on those entrenched power holders and push them to make wise changes in policy and practice.

After almost nine months of community investigation, here’s what we now know.


Members of the State College community as community members have an absolute right to make energy decisions for the University Park Campus of Penn State University, because every member of this community is directly or indirectly economically dependent on the university. Penn State officials are wrong when they insist it’s none of our business, an internal matter. If Penn State goes bankrupt in 20 years from bad energy decisions made now, the Borough will also collapse. We cannot trust that what Penn State authorities think is good for them is also automatically good for us; often those individuals make decisions that are bad for Penn State and bad for the community. We’re important stakeholders in our own right. We need to be at the decision-making table to protect our own long-term interests. And if Penn State planners are secretly counting on bankruptcy in 20 years to render their bad current decisions moot, we need to know that now, so we can plan to create an entirely independent economy as they slide toward oblivion.


Replacing the current plan to lock-in reliance on the steam heat system and expand gas-fired power generation capacity with an alternative plan of deep retrofits to cut consumption, install district geothermal and solar PV systems, and decommission the fossil fuel system – is completely feasible, and Penn State officials are lying when they insist that it’s not.

It’s a matter of budget prioritization. Using a wide range of cost estimates – 14 million square feet at $4 to $10 per square foot for deep retrofits – the total cost to tighten the building envelopes and controls at University Park is $56 million to $140 million. Mike Rybacki has made a good start in outlining how it can be done in more detail. Public release of the Penn State Energy Strategic Master Plan will allow community members to refine that plan until it’s ready for implementation and regular updating.


Penn State officials are also lying when they insist they must add gas capacity and convert the boilers at the West Campus Steam plant to comply with state and federal air quality regulations. As the PA-Department of Environmental Protection noted in renewing Penn State’s operating permit:

“Under the current operating permit, Penn State is not authorized to construct any new source or modify any existing sources….

…Any energy efficiency improvements at the university which may result in reduced utilization of the facility’s boilers, other than direct modifications to the boilers themselves, do not require plan approval from the Department’s air quality program…

The operating permit doesn’t preclude any appropriate methods of compliance with MACT, including permanent retirement of the pollution emitting sources….The Title V Operating Permit renewal has not precluded Penn State from utilizing heat pumps or geothermal systems to meet the University Park Campus’ heating needs…”


I attended the Board of Trustees Finance, Business & Capital Planning committee meeting last week. Energy planning was not on the agenda at all, further indicating that there’s a yawning canyon between what the trustees and OPP think the future will look like (rosy, hopeful visions of a return to the “normal” of economic growth underpinned by cheap energy), and what we think it will look like – a rough economic contraction process unfolding over the rest of our lifetimes and well beyond. Data and evidence (such as well depletion rates in Barnett and Marcellus) are part of bridging the gap.

But there’s a bigger subterranean problem of worldview that precludes their understanding. The trustees and OPP administrators literally cannot see what we’re talking about, why we’re so agitated about what they’re doing or why we’re working so hard to present ways to address a problem they don’t even recognize as a thing, much less a problem, much less a problem they need to be concerned about personally or as institutional representatives.

Richard Heinberg sums it up nicely:

1. Energy is the biggest single issue facing us as a species.

2. We are headed toward a (nearly) all-renewable-energy economy one way or the other, and planning is essential if we want to get there in one piece.

3. In the process of transition, the ways that society uses energy must change at least as much as the ways society produces energy.

4. Managerial elites will not be persuaded of all three previous conclusions until it is too late to organize a proactive energy transition capable of sustaining the current basic structures of industrial society.

The worldview of Penn State’s “managerial elite” won’t allow timely, predicament-appropriate planning, and their psychological defenses (denial, oversimplification, etc.) to protect themselves from the terrifying ramifications of understanding the end of cheap energy are enormous. They’re embedded in the sheltered worlds of higher education administration, corporations, and finance. They don’t have the luxury we have – of being supported by a network of people who have been grappling with the implications of resource depletion, climate change and economic contraction for years or decades and have made an uneasy peace with the scariness and huge scale of the predicament, and with the need to grapple with it anyway.

So, I think it’s time to take organizing off-line – make a list of concrete demands, make a civil disobedience plan that raises the political stakes for the “managerial elites” and takes the fight directly to their physical offices on campus. We’ve been educating ourselves, sending letters to officials, speaking at public meetings and circulating petitions since March and the gas plan grinds on. Has their stubbornness radicalized us enough? Let’s find out.

Let’s find out if there’s enough compassionate community anger to mobilize sit-ins, human blockades, boycotts – the panoply of direct action tools developed by other social change movements throughout history – to end Penn State’s fossil fuel addiction.

UPDATE 12.15.13 – Meetings cancelled.

Organizing meetings will be held at my house on the first Saturday of every month, now until May – 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. at 156 West Hamilton Ave. RSVP by phone, email or in person. And please spread the word, especially to Penn State undergraduate students who may want to join the campaign. 


One thought on “Free Penn State from Fossil Fuels – Direct Action Campaign

    Very inciteful Katherine.
    Yes, We Are… Stakeholders.
    It is remarkable how Penn State’s leadership has turned a blind eye and deaf ear to proactive possibilities for our community and nation and species. How can they not comprehend the reality of climate disruption and what must be done?

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