Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Groups Call for End of Federal Coal Leasing Program

Andrea Sears, Public News Service

Advocates say coal-leasing reform must take climate change into account. (Sierra Club)
Advocates say coal-leasing reform must take climate change into account. (Sierra Club)
PITTSBURGH -- Community leaders, environmentalists and public health advocates rallied in Pittsburgh on Tuesday, calling on the U.S. Department of Interior to reform the federal coal-leasing program. During a public listening session, they said the program is broken, outdated and ignores the threat of climate change.

Randy Francisco, a senior organizing representative for the Sierra club, said these sessions were the first opportunity the public has had to weigh in on the climate impact of coal mined on public lands.

"This review should acknowledge scientific consensus that the vast majority of fossil fuels must remain in the ground in order to avoid the worst effects of climate disruption," he said.

About 400 million tons of coal are mined on public lands every year, representing 40 percent of all coal burned in the United States. Francisco said air and water pollution from coal can trigger asthma attacks, respiratory illness and even cancer. He said the industry pays royalties for coal from public land that are far less than what the oil and gas industry pays.

"Federal coal royalties rates (are) currently 8 percent for underground coal (and) 12.5 (percent) for surface-mined coal," he said. "They have not changed in 30 years and they are far below the 18.5 percent royalty rate on offshore oil and gas."

Francisco said the federal coal-leasing program is noncompetitive, fails to meet mining reclamation standards and is self-insured against environmental damage by companies now in bankruptcy. He said Tuesday's hearing was the last of six the Interior Department has held across the country as it considers reforms to the coal-leasing program.

"It's basically a review of their whole program," he said, "and then they'll hopefully make positive changes that will help mitigate climate change, protect those public lands and keep that coal in the ground."

According to the Sierra Club, reforms must consider climate and health impacts of fossil-fuel extraction, and move toward clean, renewable energy.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Reproductive-Rights Advocates Praise Supreme Court’s Texas Ruling

Andrea Sears, Public News Service

House Bill 1948 would limit abortions after 20 weeks and ban one procedure. (Ruhrfisch/Wikimedia Commons)
House Bill 1948 would limit abortions after 20 weeks and ban one procedure. (Ruhrfisch/Wikimedia Commons)
HARRISBURG, Pa. – The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling Monday on a Texas law restricting access to abortion services calls the constitutionality of similar laws, including Pennsylvania's, into question.

The 5-to-3 ruling found that two key provisions of the Texas law impose an "undue burden" on women's right to choose.

According to Sari Stevens, director of Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania Advocates, the ruling sets a standard that opens Pennsylvania's Act 122 to legal challenge.

"It does not strike down Act 122, but it provides fodder for a state-by-state fight all across the country and we'll learn a lot more in the weeks and months to come," she points out.

Act 122 was passed in 2011. Like the Texas law, it requires surgical abortion clinics to meet requirements for ambulatory surgical facilities.

Although not as severe as the Texas law, Stevens points out that Act 122 had a similar impact on the availability of abortion services.

"A number of abortion facilities closed,” she states. “Each facility that complied spent up to hundreds of thousands of dollars on structural changes. It increased cost and limited access."

While supporters of Act 122 maintained it was to protect women's health, Stevens says Monday's Supreme Court ruling proves the intent of such laws is to restrict access to abortion.

Stevens notes that the ruling comes just a week after the Pennsylvania House passed HB 1948, a bill she says would give the state one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country.

"Women deserve access to reproductive health without barriers or political roadblocks,” she stresses. “The Supreme Court upheld that right and we hope that the Pennsylvania Legislature will heed that decision."

HB 1948 may come up for a vote in the State Senate this week.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Study Shows Clean Power Plan Saves Money

Andrea Sears, Public News Service

A cost effective clean power plan would save Pennsylvania households an average $1,880 over the next 15 years. (Rennett Stowe/flickr.com)
A cost effective clean power plan would save Pennsylvania households an average $1,880 over the next 15 years. (Rennett Stowe/flickr.com)
HARRISBURG, Pa. – Implementing a clean power plan could cut carbon emissions and save Pennsylvania consumers money, according to a new study by the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Opponents of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan maintain that enforcing mandatory reductions in emissions from power plants would bankrupt the nation.

But Marilyn Brown, the study’s author, says there are cost effective ways to go about it.

"What we're showing is in fact if done wisely, we can save consumers money and also prevent fossil fuels from heating up the planet," she states.

The report says if nothing is done, electric bills would go up in Pennsylvania by more than 22 percent over the next 15 years, but with the Clean Power Plan, the average household would save almost $1,900 in the same time period.

The U.S. Supreme Court put the plan on hold during a legal challenge by 27 states and a number of corporations.

But Joe Minott, executive director of the Clean Air Council, says Gov. Tom Wolf is still committed to developing a clean power plan for Pennsylvania.

"There are various attempts by the legislature to interfere with the governor's right to come up with a plan that are slowing things down, but generally environmentalists are pretty optimistic that we'll come up with a good plan," Minott says.

Even if the courts strike down the EPA's plan, states are free to implement plans of their own.

Some suggest phasing out coal-fired power plants by increasing reliance on natural gas, but gas also is a potent contributor to climate change.

Brown points out that increasing energy efficiency is a piece of the puzzle that's often overlooked.

"If we cut back on our electricity requirements by investing in efficient equipment, then we can prevent the build-up of this expensive infrastructure that would not serve the next generation very well," he explains.

Nationally, the goal of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan is a 32 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2030, slowing global climate change, saving billions of dollars in health care costs, and preventing up to 6,600 premature deaths.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Map Displays Methane Threats in PA

Andrea Sears, Public News Service 

About 1.5 million Pennsylvanians live within a half mile of an oil or gas facility. (USGS/Wikimedia Commons)
About 1.5 million Pennsylvanians live within a half mile of an oil or gas facility. (USGS/Wikimedia Commons)
HARRISBURG, Pa. -- Methane pollution is a health hazard, studies have found, and now an online map can tell you how close that risk is to you.

About 1.5 million people live within a half mile of one or more of the more than 100,000 oil and gas facilities operating in Pennsylvania. Studies show that those people are at greatest risk of the negative health impact of methane exposure, including fetal damage and respiratory ailments.

Conrad Schneider, advocacy director for the Clean Air Task Force, said the new online map can help people assess the risk they face in their own homes.

"We hope that, armed with this information, they will demand protective safeguards requiring the industry to clean up its act and reduce these serious risks to public health," he said.

In May, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finalized standards to cut methane emissions from new sources, but those standards don't cover the hundreds of thousands of already existing facilities.

According to Patrice Tomcik, a western Pennsylvania field organizer for Moms Clean Air Force, two studies of methane impacts on unborn children have been done in Pennsylvania, including one in Butler County where she lives.

"What it showed," she said, "is that there are adverse birth outcomes that are happening the closer that these moms are to gas development."

The map also shows hospitals and schools that are located within a half-mile radius of oil and gas facilities.

Nationally, people living in 238 counties in 21 states face increased risks of cancer. Schneider said those primarily are gas and oil-producing states, and reducing methane emissions would help.

"That will reduce emissions of these toxic air pollutants like benzene and ethylbenzene and formaldehyde as well," he said, "the ones that are causing these cancer risks."

The EPA has begun the process of formulating new regulations to curb emissions from existing sources.

The map is online at oilandgasthreatmap.com.

Monday, June 6, 2016

A Plan to Restore Hope in the Coalfields of Appalachia

Andrea Sears, Public News Service

Land purchased from bankrupt coal companies could help revive Appalachian economies. (Shuvaev/Wikimedia Commons)
Land purchased from bankrupt coal companies could help revive Appalachian economies. (Shuvaev/Wikimedia Commons)
HARRISBURG, Pa. - With the decline of the coal industry in Appalachia, there are plenty of ideas being floated to revive the region's economy.

Former journalist Jim Branscome calls his the Appalachian Homestead Act, an idea he detailed in recent op-ed articles in some of the region's largest newspapers.

He proposes using land the federal government would purchase from bankrupted coal companies to help people in Appalachia revive the economy and, in turn, restore hope.

"The application of the proposal for homesteading applies from northern Alabama all the way to northern Pennsylvania," he says. "Same, similar problems."

Branscome compares his idea to the settling of the West, providing land for people to farm and garden, to graze livestock and to create business opportunities.

He believes it may be "today's single best solution to the enduring problem of mountain poverty."

A native of Virginia's coalfields, Branscome says for decades the national media has portrayed the region as a place where people are lazy, with many depending on welfare to get by.

"And the truth is, can you image anybody that is harder working than a coal miner," he says. "Can you imagine anybody who's harder working than a farmer scratching out a living in the hills of Appalachia? We're talking about some of the most enterprising people on the face of the earth."

Branscome stresses that the critical element of his proposal is inspiring people to restore a "sense of pride and progress."

But he admits his optimism is tempered by his experiences reporting on a region that's "at the bottom of the poorest."

"Despite all of this advocacy, and despite all of the political power and newspaper power that was brought," he says. "We still haven't managed to change the fundamental economic basis of those areas, and homesteading is one way to do that."

Branscome says he has received an overwhelming response to his call for an Appalachian Homestead Act.