The University of Pennsylvania has committed to 100% carbon neutrality by 2042, but is it actually dedicated to meeting this goal?
Currently, one of Penn’s administrators is seeking to block local residents and environmental justice activists from participating in decisions about how our publicly-owned gas utility spends its money. Given Penn’s ostensible endorsement of its administrator's attempt to silence community members, Penn must clarify whether or not it supports this undemocratic move.
Leigh Whitaker, Penn’s Director of City Relations, serves as the chair of the board that runs Philadelphia Gas Works — the city’s municipally-owned gas utility. As Penn’s city relations director and overseer of PGW, Whitaker has substantial power to advance Penn and Philadelphia’s climate change commitments by decarbonizing PGW.
But instead of furthering climate initiatives and facilitating public participation at PGW, Whitaker and the rest of the board she chairs have repeatedly allowed PGW to advance restrictions on public participation in its budget process.
Each year, PGW must propose a budget to the City of Philadelphia, which either approves, recommends modifications, or denies PGW’s proposal. The budget proposal, though, is more than just a financial document. It encompasses key infrastructure decisions that affect both the climate and costs that citizens must pay off for years. Citizens and community groups — such as POWER Interfaith, a local organization advancing environmental and economic justice — participate in budget proposals to advocate for equitable carbon-free initiatives. Public participation in PGW’s budget proposal is especially important because PGW is not a city department. Rather, PGW is not directly operated by the city and therefore not accountable to many of the democratic checks otherwise imposed on government departments.
The current budget process enables democratic public participation. Community groups, citizens, and the designated “Public Advocate” — who, by contract, is tasked with representing the interests of all PGW customers — have the right to intervene in budget proceedings by submitting written questions, asking questions during hearings, requesting documents, and giving written testimony. PGW, however, is putting these crucial rights on the chopping block.
For the past year, PGW has sought to eliminate the community and the Public Advocate’s right to meaningfully engage in the budget process. PGW’s proposed restrictions on public involvement come after POWER Interfaith’s recent interventions to promote climate action. If PGW’s proposal were to succeed, Philadelphia residents would lose their voice in proceedings that directly impact their wallets and their environment. Unjustifiably, Whitaker and her board are facilitating PGW’s restrictions on public participation.
Over the coming decades, PGW must transition to a carbon-neutral system to address climate change and comply with the City Council’s Renewable Energy Resolution and the Mayor’s Net-Zero Commitment. Instead of taking meaningful steps toward these mandates, PGW continues to invest in new fossil-fuel infrastructure that customers will have to pay off for decades. Meanwhile, PGW is attempting to quell citizens’ ability to have their voices heard about important infrastructure issues.
But Penn’s voice — and Whitaker’s — would not be so easily dismissed by PGW.
Penn has a responsibility to use its economic and political power to support climate action in the city, but it has failed to do so. Penn has refused to fully divest the portion of its $20.7 billion endowment derived from fossil fuels and has disciplined students for taking part in climate protests. And as the largest employer and largest private landowner in Philadelphia, and likely one of the largest PGW customers, Penn has a duty to advance climate action across Philadelphia.
On its own campus, Penn has made strides to reduce emissions and advance climate research. But when it comes to promoting climate action in the broader Philadelphia area, Penn stands by while its own Director of City Relations attempts to squash environmental justice groups’ right to participate in public PGW proceedings.
Penn can no longer ignore its duty to the broader community and must use its influence to stop PGW’s anti-citizen proposal. We call upon Penn to make a clear public statement that PGW should immediately end all attempts to block community groups from participating in its budget proposal process. And in the long-term, Penn must commit to pressure PGW to transition to renewable energy — all the while incorporating community feedback and helping Philadelphia and Penn meet its climate commitments.
OMAR KHODOR is a third year law student from Sioux City, IA. His email is email@example.com.
SAGE LINCOLN is a third year law student from Pittsburgh. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.