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Activists pressure gas commissioners to push PGW on climate action, transparency

Protesters gather outside 1515 Arch Street in Center City to demand a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. The protest targeted Philadelphia Gas Works, whose budget is up for review. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Protesters gathered in Center City Philadelphia Monday to pressure city officials to push the city-owned gas utility to take swifter climate action.

The five-member Philadelphia Gas Commission will vote Tuesday on Philadelphia Gas Works’ (PGW) operating budget. Advocates hope the commissioners will require PGW to be more transparent and move faster toward a business model that’s not based on fossil fuels.

“We want PGW’s budget to show that the utility treats the climate crisis seriously as an immediate threat,” said Jordan Teicher, an organizer with Philly DSA (Democratic Socialists of America), which organized Monday’s rally. “We all know that we need to stop burning fossil fuels as soon as possible. Generally speaking, this is a business-as-usual budget. It’s not sufficient based on the threat that we’re facing.”

Jordan Teicher of the Philadelphia Democratic Socialists leads a rally outside 1515 Arch Street in Center City to demand a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. The protest targeted Philadelphia Gas Works, whose budget is up for review. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

A coalition of 25 faith groups, community development corporations, and environmental organizations wrote an open letter to Commission members requesting “transparent, participatory planning” for PGW that will get the gas utility in line with climate realities.

This spring, members of the multi-issue advocacy group POWER Interfaith clashed with PGW after the utility tried to limit public input in its budgeting process — and advocates have criticized the utility for helping shape state legislation that would have blocked efforts to promote electrification on a local level.

On Monday, a group of about two dozen advocates, led by Philly DSA, rallied at the Gas Commission’s office.

PGW’s operations are overseen by the Philadelphia Facilities Management Corporation (PFMC), but the Philadelphia Gas Commission approves the utility’s annual operating budget and makes recommendations to City Council around PGW’s annual capital budget. The Commission consists of two appointees of the Mayor, two appointees of City Council, and the City Controller.

PGW is the largest municipally owned gas utility in the country, and supplies city residents with gas for heating, cooking, and other household appliances. But its current business model — reliant on planet-warming fossil fuels — runs counter to the city’s goal of reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Scientists say the world needs to rapidly cut carbon emissions in order to avoid some of the most disastrous impacts of climate change.

PGW has agreed to explore other business models. A much-anticipated business diversification study released late last year recommended additional study into three possible paths forward — geothermal energy, expanded weatherization, and harvesting sewer gas or landfill gas. It also warned of possible stranded PGW assets, high upfront capital investments, and potential increases for ratepayers.

At-large City Councilmember Derek Green, who chairs the Gas Commission, said Monday he was still reviewing materials ahead of Tuesday’s meeting, and planned to ask PGW about the advocates’ requests. But he said it was important that the Commission approve PGW’s budget ahead of the utility’s fiscal year starting next month.

“Ultimately, we approve their operating budget and their capital budget,” he said. “So as they are moving through with their plans for how they’re going to diversify and how they’re going to have a geothermal pilot, that’s something that we can hold them accountable if they’re not moving forward fast enough.”

Activist Jakki Hunter raises her fist in solidarity with about 20 other protesters outside Philadelphia city offices at 1515 Arch Street. The group, led by the local Democratic Socialists of America, wants Philadelphia Gas Works to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The utility’s proposed Fiscal Year 2023 operating budget does include $500,000 for a “Geothermal Feasibility Study.” Geothermal energy is a renewable way to heat and cool homes using the stable temperature underground.

But advocates say they haven’t gotten sufficient detail from PGW on how exactly that money will be spent. They want the feasibility study to have clear goals, public input, and regular updates. They also want a commitment to benefiting low-income communities and maximizing participation by PGW workers.

“This $500,000 feasibility study needs to be more specific. I mean, that’s a huge amount of money,” said Linnea Bond, of Physicians for Social Responsibility Pennsylvania. “If that feasibility study is unsuccessful because it’s poorly designed, that’s going to put us backward in where we need to be headed.”

Linnea Bond of Physicians for Social Responsibility addresses a rally outside 1515 Arch Street in Center City. About 20 activists gathered to demand lower greenhouse gas emissions from Philadelphia Gas Works. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Similarly, the advocates want to see PGW give the public regular, detailed reports on its broader efforts to transition to a new business model not dependent on fossil fuels, along with regular opportunities for public input. They want PGW to set measurable pollution reduction goals for 2025 and 2030.

“We need accountability and transparency from PGW managers in order to ensure that we can have a just energy system, a livable climate, and affordable energy for Philly residents,” said Mitch Chanin, of Reclaim Philadelphia.

PGW spokesperson Richard Barnes said in a statement that PGW does engage with stakeholders on all issues impacting customers.

“Our mission is to enhance the quality of life for all by delivering safe, reliable, and affordable energy in an environmentally responsible way,” he wrote in an email. “We are strongly committed to achieving an 80 percent reduction in methane emissions from our natural gas distribution system by 2050.”

Protesters gather outside 1515 Arch Street in Center City to demand a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. The protest targeted Philadelphia Gas Works, whose budget is up for review. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Gas Commissioner and City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart was out of town Monday, but her proxy on the Commission, Kellan White, said he was looking into commissioners’ authority to vote against a budget based on its content. He said the Controller supports calls for more transparency and public engagement in PGW’s budgeting and planning processes.

“Controller Rhynhart believes public participation and transparency should be the bedrock of our government and will continue to push the Gas Commission and all of City government to be as transparent as possible,” he wrote in an emailed statement. “As we continue to navigate the impacts of climate change, ensuring we are listening to the public and considering the public’s needs will be crucial to accomplishing our shared goals.”

Gas commissioners must assess PGW’s proposed budgets in light of their “fiscal health and the fiscal soundness,” said commission Executive Director Gemela McClendon. The commission cannot fail to approve an operating budget, “as doing so would leave PGW without the funds to operate the system, resulting in significant safety concerns as well as putting PGW in direct violation of Commonwealth of Pennsylvania law,” she said.


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