As reported in yesterday’s Steady State College, the PSU Sustainability Institute has hired a mediator to assess community energy planning processes.
Excerpt from Introductory Letter by Denice Wardrop, SI Director
“…The West Campus Steam Plant natural gas conversion and accompanying pipeline installation have generated considerable controversy in our community. The Sustainability Institute, along with the entire university, is committed to establishing an open and transparent decision-making process for Penn State’s long-range energy-related planning and exploring the development of a University and local community energy plan.
The Sustainability Institute has engaged Alexander Wiker to work with the community at large to create a process for implementing these goals, utilizing the West Campus Steam Plant conversion process as a case study…He will be working with the Penn State Sustainability Institute and under the guidance of Lara Fowler, Senior Lecturer with Penn State Dickinson School of Law and a Research Fellow with the Penn State Institutes of Energy and the Environment …Alex and Lara will summarize the interviews and draft a synthesized report. …The report will be made available to the public, and there will be additional public discussion of the findings…”
- How were you or your organization involved with the West Campus Steam Plant conversion and natural gas pipeline issue? a. What were/are the key issues for you and/or your organization? b. At what point did you or your organization become engaged in this issue?
- From your perspective, what happened with the West Campus Steam Plant conversion and natural gas pipeline over the last few years? a. What were/are the crucial moments/processes in this project?
- From your perspective, have there been any major successes? a. What were/are the major drivers or causes? b. What could have been done or could be done differently to improve upon this success.
- From your perspective, have there been any major problems or disappointments? a. What were/are the major drivers or causes? b. What could have been or can be done differently?
- Is there anything that I should have asked about the process so far that I have not yet asked, but should? If so, what?
Potential Process for Addressing Future Energy Questions:
- What would a successful process for addressing energy planning in the future look like for the University? For this region? a. Where are the opportunities for progress? b. What are the major challenges to achieving that success?
- In your opinion, what could help to move forward on this path to success?
- In your opinion, how can the Sustainability Institute be most helpful?
- Are there specific elements of a collaborative process that would be most helpful in addressing long-term energy planning, and who do you think should be involved?
- Is there anyone else you think I should talk to as part of this evaluation?
- Is there anything that I should have asked about but have not yet? If so, what?
Katherine Watt – Preliminary Responses – (3.11.4 Wiker Responses)
How are you or your organization involved with the West Campus Steam Plant conversion and natural gas pipeline issue?
I collect documents and post them online for citizen access, attend meetings, report on events, analyze documents and public statements, and write about the issues in the Centre Daily Times, Voices of Central PA, and at my websites (energy sovereignty.wordpress.com and steadystatecollege.wordpress.com). I also compile summaries of recent events and related national and international news in letters to the Penn State Board of Trustees, administrators and local legislators.
In December 2013, community activists began working to form Fossil Free Penn State, to advocate for institutional divestment of the endowment from fossil fuel industries, and a transition to a fossil free campus energy system.
What are the key issues for you and/or your organization?
Penn State planners’ public denialism regarding the need to engage realistically with declining access to affordable fossil fuels, increasing impacts of climate change and the ongoing contraction in the economy inhabited by most of the American population.
At what point did you become engaged in this issue?
On March 16, 2013. I met Johan Zwart at Webster’s and he asked me – in passing – if I knew any environmental lawyers, and informed me about the March 12 neighborhood meeting about the pipeline that he’d attended a few days earlier.
I informed him about the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund and the Borough’s Community Bill of Rights (prohibiting new fossil fuel infrastructure), and began writing about the issue as a test case for the bill of rights on March 17, 2013.
I was immediately on red flag alert because I was unable to find complete, accurate information about the genesis and development of the plan online. I’m a reporter and community organizer, and have learned that a lack of readily-available information about important public issues signals the involved parties’ efforts to conduct business without oversight because they fear public engagement will interfere with their plans rather than strengthen them.
From your perspective, what happened with the West Campus Steam Plant conversion and natural gas pipeline over the last few years?
- OPP planners developed the natural gas conversion plan starting in 2007. They hired consultants but did not conduct rigorous alternatives analysis; no evidence of alternatives analysis has been released publicly to date. They publicly construed their efforts as related to MACT compliance, but that framing has since been called into question because compliance could have been achieved through much simpler, less costly means; planners’ actual goal was to increase total energy capacity and emissions while avoiding increased regulation and increased public scrutiny.
- I suspect gas lobbyists became involved sometime between 2007 and 2011, possibly influencing the planning process to rule out non-gas alternatives. Again, without public access to planning records, there’s no evidence to confirm or disconfirm this conjecture.
- In 2010, student activists conducted a “Beyond Coal” campaign; Penn State planners responded, in part, by publicly committing to natural gas as an alternative fossil fuel. Pennsylvania communities affected by fracking were just beginning to organize around air and water quality impacts and health problems associated with nearby drilling operations, although researchers on the Western Slope of the Rocky Mountains had already compiled extensive data about the environmental and health hazards of fracking.
- In early 2011, OPP planners met with DEP officials to discuss the plan, addressing their most pressing concern: how to sequence the project to avoid New Source Review.
- By mid-2011, planners were reviewing at least four possible pipeline routes, including one along College Ave., where the existing gas line is located. Objections from local business owners were conveyed to Penn State planners via the Downtown State College Business Improvement District.
- By September 2012, Columbia Gas and Penn State OPP had settled on the Prospect Ave. route. A few administrators invited Mayor Goreham to a small, private briefing; other administrators began expressing concern (via emails) that Goreham would leak the information and trigger a negative community reaction. In an attempt to prepare for that possibility, they began organizing a public relations campaign to minimize the dangers of the pipeline and obscure the full scale of the project.
- In October 2012, planners organized the first neighborhood information meeting. Announcement letters were mailed to homeowners a few days before the event; the project was minimized and misrepresented in the letters, the event was not publicized via the local newspapers or the Borough’s website. Very few homeowners attended, and those who did left thinking the pipeline would be a small residential-scale distribution line.
- In November 2012, the PSU Board of Trustees authorized funding for the project, and planners presented information to members of the Borough Council at a Town-Gown meeting held at the Hotel State College (not a regular public Council meeting at the Borough Building)
- In March 2013, Columbia Gas prepared to submit a right-of-way permit application, which reminded planners that they had failed to brief the Council at a public hearing. They quickly organized a second neighborhood information session for March 12, ahead of a planned public hearing April 1 that was widely expected to be a rubber-stamp process.
- Johan Zwart attended the briefing, began to understand the full scale of the project, consulted me about environmental attorneys and began a flier & organizational meeting campaign to inform his neighbors about the project and encourage them to attend the April 1 hearing to voice their safety concerns.
What were/are the crucial moments/processes in this project?
- The OPP decision not to conduct an alternatives analysis, possibly an independent decision, possibly under pressure from gas industry lobbyists via the Institute for Natural Gas Research and the Corbett administration.
- The community decision to fight the pipeline, especially the decision to include the Community Bill of Rights as a local law authorizing protective action by the local government despite state pre-emption precedent.
- The OPP decision not to publicly release the Energy Strategic Master Plan.
From your perspective, have there been any major successes?
- Mobilizing a large crowd of residents to speak out at the April 1 hearing, which gave the Borough Council the courage and political cover to unanimously adopt the resolution directing the Borough Manager to refuse to issue the right-of-way permit, and gave the Borough Manager the courage and political cover to follow through.
- Exposure of the deliberately manipulative public relations campaign; discrediting the public relations campaign operators, effectively undermining and disrupting the credibility of status quo energy planning, deference to prior plans, and exploitative town-gown relationships, which has created openings for new energy planning processes.
What were/are the major drivers or causes?
- Resident safety fears
- The experience level and time availability of community organizers, some of whom were already familiar with power-holders’ standard techniques for cutting community members out of decision-making and knew what evidence to look for (paper trails), where to look (government agencies), how to look (Freedom of Information Act/Right to Know procedures) and how to disseminate the information (websites, newspapers and emails).
What could have been done or could be done differently to improve upon this success?
The PA legislature could adopt legislation bringing Penn State fully under the state Right to Know law. The university is currently exempt; we only found evidence of internal Penn State decision-making by accessing copies of emails sent to public officials who are subject to the Right to Know law.
From your perspective, have there been any major problems or disappointments?
- The failure of the Sustainability Institute to take a side in the controversy
- The culture of insularity, secrecy, whistleblower fear, and “above the law” attitude that predominate within Penn State as an institution.
What were/are the major drivers or causes?
- The Sustainability Institute is structurally hampered by its multiple funding streams. All the staffers’ jobs depend on the goodwill of potential targets for constructive criticism and thus the staff members are unable to speak freely.
- Penn State is legally chartered as “an instrumentality of the state,” which is a bridge category rendering the institution functionally unaccountable. For example, the university is exempt from pollution fees otherwise assessed on private entities, because it submits applications as a public entity, and the university is exempt from the Right to Know law otherwise applied to public entities, because it positions itself as a private organization in terms of governance. So long as the organization can straddle that gap, it remains unaccountable to either taxpayers or private shareholders.
What could have been or can be done differently?
- The Sustainability Institute could be funded by a single independent revenue stream, charged with being the energy and environmental conscience of the institution, and explicitly empowered to take sides on controversial issues without fear of budgetary reprisals.
- The state legislature could revoke Penn State’s charter and issue a new charter establishing the university as a completely public institution. Alternatively, the university could be broken up into small private colleges along disciplinary lines, with Commonwealth campuses converted to independent community colleges.
Is there anything that I should have asked about the process so far that I have not yet asked, but should? If so, what?
- What broader cultural trends influence the situation at Penn State?
Broad cultural denial about the frightening implications of cheap-energy depletion, climate change and economic contraction. It will not be easy for Penn State’s leaders to publicly go against the tide of pretending everything is okay now and will continue to carry on in the future much as it has in the past, but they’re at least theoretically capable of finding the courage to do so.
What would a successful process for addressing energy planning in the future look like for the University? For this region?
- Repeated, firm public statements by municipal and university leaders that energy use habits cannot continue to grow or even level out at current levels; energy use habits must be cut, rapidly, to roughly 20% of current consumption levels, as quickly as possible.
- Development of a public decision-making forum to gather data about current energy production and use, to set measurable targets for cutting both use and consumption, and to monitor the progress of energy cutting programs.
Where are the opportunities for progress?
Continued and growing community interest in the issues; more and more people are beginning to understand that they are being lied to when public and corporate officials insist the economy is in recovery, that climate change can be slowed, stopped or reversed without fundamentally changing human energy-consumption habits, and that the remaining hard-to-extract fossil fuel reserves offer an affordable, long-term source of energy.
What are the major challenges to achieving that success?
Admitting and confronting those physical realities is frightening, denial-inducing and incomprehensibly challenging for all people, including public and corporate leaders.
In your opinion, what could help to move forward on this path to success?
More public and corporate officials telling the truth to the public about these issues. When more people talk about them – lifting the taboo – the predicament can gradually move from terrifying to motivating and empowering for communities.
In your opinion, how can the Sustainability Institute be most helpful?
- By taking public positions on these controversial issues, not attempting to remain a neutral bystander. That might mean prefacing public statements with information about how risky it is for SI leaders to speak up, since their funding could be cut for saying things power-holders don’t want to hear.
- By publicly lobbying to change Penn State’s energy data reporting policies to require monthly public reporting of all energy consumed at the University Park campus – including both campus-generated energy and energy purchased from the grid – in mwh equivalents. (Current reporting is via EPA and DEP filings – which can be difficult to access – and PSU press releases which spin the data, making apples to apples comparisons of energy consumption changes over time difficult.)
- By publicly lobbying to change Penn State’s energy sourcing policies to require a 20% cut in fossil fuel consumption/combustion by the University Park campus by 2020 (counting both campus-generated energy and grid-purchased energy), through conservation to cut absolute energy consumption, combined with installation of renewable energy systems to displace fossil fuel use.
- By publicly lobbying to change Penn State’s risk management policies to allow seasonal consumption, and preservation (for winter consumption) of fresh fruits and vegetables grown at the Rock Springs research farm, via a combination of dining hall consumption, donation to area food banks, and sale to students and the public. (Some crops were sold on campus to students and the public via the Cellar Market until 2010; since then, virtually all fresh produce has been tilled under or composted after data collection).
- By publicly lobbying to change Penn State’s residential dining policy to require 20% of food purchased for dining hall consumption to be locally sourced by 2020. (Rachel Hoh – Class of ’13 – has done a lot of work around this issue, including defining the term “local.” The current amount of locally sourced food served in the dining halls is roughly 1 to 2% per year.)
Are there specific elements of collaborative [or confrontational] processes that would be most helpful in addressing long-term energy planning, and who do you think should be involved?
Outsiders need to continue working within the sphere of our control – undermining the credibility of status quo advocates and undermining public deference to previous energy plans, until there’s enough newly-turned, fertile soil to plant seeds for better energy plans: cutting consumption through conservation and campus contraction, and transitioning essential energy production from fossil fuels to renewables.