Protecting God’s creation: Pennsylvania must act now to reduce carbon pollution

The Rev. MITCHELL HESCOX urges action to meet EPA's proposed new standards, especially for the sake of our children

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One of the great thrills of growing up in Cambria County’s coal country was our annual trip to Forbes Field. Over the years, with ball glove in hand, I watched Roberto Clemente, “The Great One,” dominate right field, Willie Stargell played left and “Maz” and Gene Alley anchored the infield. It was a family affair as the all-day adventure included my Dad, Pappy and my older brother.

However, one part of the trip was never pleasant. Exiting the Squirrel Hill Tunnel, we almost choked on the smoke and soot belching from the mills along the river.

The mills are gone and the air is cleaner — but not clean enough. According to the American Lung Association State of the Air Report, Allegheny County’s air stills flunks and our changing climate will make it worse.

With increased temperatures, smog will affect more kids. Today, almost 26,000 of Pittsburgh’s children have asthma-impacted lives, far too many already. More extreme weather and higher food prices also will threaten our kids and all of God’s children. It’s time to act now.

Using authority given in the 1990 Clean Air Act under President George H.W. Bush and affirmed by the Supreme Court, the Environmental Protection Agency has proposed a carbon pollution standard for power plants. This Clean Power Plan, when final, will make meaningful reductions in carbon pollution. And yet, some groups are assembling their full-throated opposition to a plan that would help clean our air, protect our kids and tackle global warming.

Those who promote opposition fear the future and wish to live in the past. It’s time to move to a new future where the threat of climate change turns to an opportunity for a clean-energy future. The future is already upon us and, make no mistake, time is running short to defend our kids. The EPA will accept public comment on its plan at open hearings in Pittsburgh July 31 and Aug. 1.

To the extent new standards make high-carbon coal less competitive and result in fewer coal-industry jobs, we can’t forget the workers in our clean-energy future. But, while I have considerable empathy for the workers, the industry itself is another story.

Since its beginning, the coal industry usually has not been a good neighbor. I know firsthand the stories of company towns, poor working conditions, environmental degradation and the maximizing of profits for the sake of faraway investors. In addition to my dad, most of my family worked in coal and, before becoming a pastor, I spent 14 years designing and supplying equipment to both the coal-mining and utility industries around the world.

While businesses like Dow Chemical, M&M Mars and even Walmart spend billions on energy efficiency, big coal spends as little as possible on research and pollution control. Only when forced by regulators has the coal industry addressed mine safety and the pollution that still impairs the lives and health of workers, neighbors and children.

The proposed EPA standard is remarkably flexible, providing states a variety of options to meet the new carbon-emissions threshold. Energy efficiency and renewable energy top the list and alone could reduce electric bills by roughly 8 percent by 2030 even as we add new jobs in a new economy.

Some utilities will look to natural gas, which emits less carbon than coal when generating electricity. But there is a danger in completely turning to natural gas.

Here in Pennsylvania, we have not addressed the dangers to both our air and water from the methane leaks associated with natural-gas production. Leaking methane escapes from wells and throughout the distribution and delivery process. Methane leaks emit up to 8 percent of production and cost the industry up to $5 billion in lost revenue nationally.

Methane also is a potent greenhouse gas up to 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide in the first 20 years after its release. Seeing as how the technology exists to capture these emissions, it’s incumbent upon Pennsylvania to police this problem and protect our children.

Recently, Colorado governments, industry and citizens got together and enacted methane-leakage standards that protect children’s health, purify the air and save the gas industry money. That’s the kind of common sense we need in Pennsylvania. Tom Corbett or Tom Wolf will have the opportunity to shepherd us down this path and we must insist that they do so.

God called us as caretakers for His creation. It’s time for a new future that protects creation, provides an abundant life for our children and an opportunity for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all Pennsylvanians.

Rev. Mitchell Hescox is a Pennsylvania native and pastor serving as president of The Evangelical EnvironmentalNetwork. He now lives in New Freedom, Pa.

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