If there ever were a warning uniquely designed for Philadelphia about its opioid-like addiction to oil and gas, this week’s catastrophic I-95 bridge collapse caused by an off-ramping tanker truck was it.
The tanker crash was just the latest of a string of signs — some in just the past few months — pointing to the need for the region to rapidly hang it up on fossil fuel use, storage and transport. Still, every sign or warning has gone unheeded. Policymakers continue to either drag their feet or get too happily distracted by do-nothing resolutions. Citizens are too bogged down by the everyday to fully comprehend the enormously dangerous dimensions of Philadelphia’s ubiquitous oil and gas consumption.
We’re hearing a lot of reasons for the catastrophe that led to one death, epic traffic snarls and worrisome supply chain clogs: a variety of factors ranging from driver mistakes to a malfunctioned truck to, perhaps, the inability of the bridge to absorb that intensity of heat.
It’s not like the city doesn’t know; it just outright refuses to do anything urgent about it.
But what’s really causing disasters of that magnitude in Philly is much broader: the city’s incessant and very sloppy long-time reliance on oil and gas. That reliance is becoming increasingly outdated by the day as climate crisis concerns and vivid manifestations such as the I-95 collapse continue to escalate. It’s not like the city doesn’t know; it just outright refuses to do anything urgent about it.
Fuel crises all around us
Just days after what was certainly an oil and gas-created apocalypse that has now gripped the region into months of infrastructure cataclysm, key players in Philadelphia still show no signs of learning: Hilco Redevelopment Partners has still failed to report on what it’s doing with the old Schuylkill River Oil Tank Farm from the PES refinery, which is part of its Bellwether District concept.
City government is barely promoting a July 27 hearing on the proposed 5-year renewal of the SEPTA gas plant in Nicetown (we only found out about it from the Clean Air Council). And no elected official has addressed the oil and gas dimensions of this issue in their statements, press conferences or press releases on the highway collapse, either.
This is no different from other recent events that keep feeling like a build-up to something much more horrific. Philadelphia had just waded through the dystopic orange haze Code Red air quality days of Canadian forest wildfires instigated by a fossil fuel-prompted climate crisis. Just before that came an unprecedented week of junkyard fires linked back to, more than likely, gasoline storage in countless automobiles and parts piled up at Philly Auto Salvage and Parts, and gasoline spillage determined by the owner at Martin Recycling Company.
Philadelphia keeps getting warned that oil and gas was never its best move to begin with, and mostly Black and Brown residents bear the brunt of those warnings.
Several months before was the very sudden and dramatic Port Richmond explosion that injured several people, destroyed homes and damaged dozens of others — caused by, once again, a gas leak. Meanwhile, as Earthworks Pennsylvania field advocate Melissa Ostroff wrote here in 2021, methane gas continuously leaks all over Philadelphia, “four times what the EPA estimates,” and Philadelphia Gas Works has no response plan. Before that, of course, was the unforgettable Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery explosion in 2019.
Warnings also come in different shapes and sizes. The city’s Black and Brown populations continue to serve as political and public policy guinea pigs as Philly’s environment and climate further deteriorate. Philadelphia air quality is so bad that it received a warning from the American Lung Association in 2019. That’s worse for the distressed and systemically dismissed residents who tend to live, work and play next to or nearby fossil fuel facilities (because they have no choice). That includes locations such as the SEPTA Nicetown gas plant, or the PGW gas plant in Southwest Philadelphia, or the PES refinery that once was and that, over its lifetime, caused countless cases of chronic illnesses and cancers that no institution still is held accountable for.
Let’s look to other cities
In light of all this, you’d think we’d be having a new conversation this week … And, yet, we haven’t. Philadelphia-area policymakers, especially City Councilmembers and state legislators, should be teaming up publicly to explore bans on the roadway transportation and hauling of hazardous and combustible substances through a densely populated, poor road condition and poverty-stricken place like Philly.
For example, look to places like Santa Barbara County, California, which began denying trucking permit applications to oil and gas companies to ship fossil fuels from ports to inland facilities after a disastrous spill in 2015. Or, as is the case with Nigeria, could Philly officials now look into — as a first step — imposing strict size limits on oil trucks and tankers?
City Council should be making noise over the city’s nasty fossil fuel habit in collaboration with residents, considering the massive health and economic impacts. The vision should be to abolish Philadelphia Gas Works and transition it to Philadelphia Clean Energy Works. That’s actually not as far-fetched as it might sound: This McKinsey report (along with many other studies and discussions) explores how gas utilities can decarbonize their infrastructure. So, why is PGW stuck in the 19th and 20th centuries, still?
As the Clean Air Council’s Russell Zerbo notes, PGW keeps getting in the way of progress and air people can breathe. “We are certainly very concerned that the city will not meet its goal of 2050 carbon neutrality because of PGW’s lackluster efforts to transition away from fossil fuels,” Zerbo says. “I would say that any effort to purge the city of oil and gas would have to start with PGW. Their liquified natural gas storage facility in Port Richmond is one of the largest on the East Coast. That plant also does not have any sitewide pollution limits.”
Why the inaction?
Where are the aggressive partnerships with clean energy companies which own resources that don’t kill people? Why aren’t we thinking about a state-local campaign for fresh bans on consumer products like gas stoves? , New York just did this, with appropriations set aside for the low-income residential purchase of electric stoves. Such advocacy could leverage Philadelphia politically in Harrisburg.
City Council should be making noise over the city’s nasty fossil fuel habit in collaboration with residents, considering the massive health and economic impacts.
What about a citywide ban on natural gas items in new homes and new buildings, like dozens of other cities? Philly moves fast on approving new fossil fuel projects, but moves slow in its clean energy and climate-friendly transition. (Just look at all the Cs and Ds on the climate report card from the end of Mayor Kenney’s first term.)
Philadelphia keeps receiving warnings. Oil and gas were never its best move to begin with, and mostly Black and Brown residents bear the brunt of those warnings. Influential lobbies and industries are keeping climate-wrecking ball gasses in our air, homes and, ultimately, lungs. Despite the warning, despite both residents and out-of-state travelers now wrestling with hellish commutes, Philadelphia still follows the destructive fossil fuel agenda. It really doesn’t have to.
Charles D. Ellison, CPM, is publisher of the BEnote.com, a 2023 Emerson Collective Fellow and a lead member of Drexel University’s Climate Resilience Research Agenda. He can be found on Linkedin at @cdellison.
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I-95 collapse in Philadelphia. Courtesy of Commonwealth Media.