Hard Choices

UPDATE March 20 – CDT Coverage:

Many Highlands neighborhood residents and other State College citizens – and a few Council members – spoke at the March 18 Borough Council meeting, expressing concern about the planned 1012-inch, 400 psi natural gas pipeline and frustration about the lack of information, public notice and public discussion of the project.

While much remains unclear, the basic project outline seems to be (corrections and additions welcome) that installation will begin April 1, materials have been gathered at the former Houts site along West College Avenue, and the pipeline will run in the public right-of-way through residential neighborhoods along Prospect Avenue from University Drive to Burrowes Street, up Burrowes across Beaver Avenue and College Avenue to the Penn State West Campus Steam Plant. Representatives from Columbia Gas Co., performing the installation, and Penn State’s Office of Physical Plant, also spoke to Council last night, although the issue was not on the Council’s official agenda. There was apparently one small neighborhood meeting in October 2012, and another one about a week ago, but it’s not clear how notice was provided and by whom; several residents of the affected streets were completely unaware of the project until receiving hand-delivered fliers this past weekend.

The pipeline project is on the Council agenda for their April 1 meeting. However, Council members said they hadn’t given the issue much attention, because since it was first proposed,  and throughout the planning and design process conducted by Penn State and Columbia Gas engineers, Council members have been told that the Borough has no authority to approve or disapprove or otherwise weigh in on the plan.

My understanding (again, corrections and additions welcome) is that the only authorizing bodies are the Penn State Board of Trustees, which approved the plant conversion plan in December 2012, and the Pennsylvania Utilities Commission.

I haven’t located any information about PUC involvement, but that’s likely because I don’t know the docket numbers and other key data needed to enter online document requests. Borough permitting is only involved in a request for permission to do night work during the installation – that application was apparently submitted by Columbia Gas yesterday.

There are at least two good online sources for general background information about the coal to natural gas transition:

The second article quotes Paul Moser, steam plant engineer:

Lately the steam plant has been a target of environmentalists and activist students, who have met with administrators and held rallies outside Mr. Moser’s door in attempts to push the university away from coal-fired energy. He doesn’t entirely disagree with the protesters.

“If your whole society is based on finite quantities of stuff that could one day run out, you should be looking for ways to replace that,” he says, noting that Penn State burns about 75,000 tons of coal, or some 3,200 truckloads, every year. The question he asks the activists: What reliable, economical energy source can power the campus in coal’s place? “That’s where a lot of our conversations get quiet.”

He’s right, because that’s the place where we meet with the imperative to make our institutions, buildings and energy use smaller, which runs counter to growth-based economic models. Recognizing reliance on finite resources doesn’t mean switching from one finite resource to another. It means picturing Penn State in ten years with fewer buildings, more shared offices and shared jobs, fewer students and staff and no fossil-fueled power plants at all, and then planning the intermediate steps to reach that stage with as little pain and suffering for current students and staff as possible.

That’s the hard choice confronting Penn State as an institution – whether or not to truly grapple with the full implications of resource depletion.

But apart from the coal-to-gas conversion plan’s failure to address the actual predicament of energy resource depletion, the pipeline plan also runs afoul of the Borough’s Community Bill of Rights and Natural Gas Drilling Ban charter amendment, adopted in November 2011 with public endorsement from Mayor Elizabeth Goreham and over public objections by five Council members serving at the time.

That Bill of Rights specifically  invalidates pre-emptive rights, as exercised by corporations such as Columbia Gas and governing bodies such as the Pennsylvania Utilities Commission, to endanger the people of State College. It’s also self-executing, meaning it can be enforced without court intervention.

To his credit, alone among the representatives at the Mayor-Council table, Councilman Peter Morris tried to address this conflict last night.

He said he fully agrees with residents who oppose the pipeline plan as dangerous, and without any benefit to State College residents, and who explicitly asked the Borough Council to protect them, their families and the homes, schools and churches along the planned pipeline route.

But he also explicitly endorsed the doctrine of pre-emption, legal precedent that corporations and state and federal authorities may endanger American citizens with state and federal judicial backing. Mr. Morris said that if the Borough Council attempted to enforce the ban on pipeline installation (included in the Bill of Rights), then Columbia Gas and possibly Penn State would sue the Borough, the matter would go before a Pennsylvania or federal judge, and the Borough would lose the court battle. So, he said, he doesn’t see any value in engaging in a legal fight without a strong likelihood of winning.

Councilman Don Hahn also cited pre-emption in his remarks, adding that secession from state and federal authorities may be among the Borough’s few options to prevent the project, an option he doesn’t personally support.

That’s the hard choice confronting the Borough Council: whether or not to carry forward the act of municipal civil disobedience (a Rosa Parks moment for the Borough) committed by 2,007 individual voters who went into the voting booths on November 8, 2011 and filled in the bubble for “Yes.”

Bill of Rights Election ResultsBoth choices – whether the Borough Council decides to enforce the pipeline ban or sides with Columbia Gas and the PUC against the interests of Borough residents – have consequences that can’t be predicted with anything close to certainty. Enforcing the will of the voters means thwarting the will of the corporations:  bringing the doctrine of preemption out of the shadows and into very harsh light. Which means confronting our helplessness, and abandoning the illusion of self-governing, people-powered democracy we hold rather dear.

Hard choices.

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One Response to Hard Choices

  1. Peggy Lauver says:

    Remember, Gov. Corbett sits on the PSU Board. He supports gas at any cost to the citizens. The residents will lose. It would be great to get it out as a national debate. The momentum against the consequences of pipelines and drilling is building but the power position still resides w. the corporations and politicians.

    FYI: Susquehanna U. is facing the conversion issue also.

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