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Clean Power — Our Power

A Perspective from NY/NJ Environmental Justice Groups

By Ana Orozco and Molly Greenberg

Climate Justice Alliance at the historic People's Climate March, 2014. Photo by Rae Breaux, ©2014 Our Power Campaign

In January 2016, members of  community-based and environmental justice groups across the US held simultaneous actions in all ten EPA Regional headquarter cities. The protests call for the adoption of the Our Power Plan (OPP) a comprehensive justice-focused response to reducing greenhouse gasses that flags the dangers of false promises like carbon trading, natural gas, and nuclear energy.

This national demonstration of solidarity was coordinated by the Climate Justice Alliance (CJA), which unites frontline communities hit hardest by climate disruption, pollution, and economic crises.

In New York and New Jersey members from UPROSE in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, and Ironbound Community Corporation in Newark, NJ personally delivered the Our Power Plan report to EPA Region 2 administrator Judith Enck and staff at their Manhattan office. The aim of the actions is to challenge the EPA to bring an environmental justice lens to Obama administration policies—chief among them, the Clean Power Plan (CPP), released in August 2015, by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  This plan is an attempt by the US government to confront climate change and reduce the country’s carbon pollution.

The CPP demonstrates that the Obama administration and the EPA take seriously the issue of climate change and have finally developed a plan to reduce this country’s greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). The plan addresses carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants, which is a start. But the plan does not go far enough. It still allows for hazardous energy facilities, completely neglects co-pollutants, accepts extractive energy sources and fails to address disparate siting of power plants in low income communities and communities of color.

The Our Power Plan highlights some of the shortcomings with the CPP and proposes justice and equity based solutions. One of the most glaring shortcomings of the CPP is accepting natural gas, nuclear energy, and incineration as satisfactory alternatives to coal-fired energy. Unfortunately the NJ Energy Master Plan shares these shortcomings. If we really want to reduce our GHG emissions by 80% by 2050, a goal of the De Blasio administration’s OneNYC plan and the CPP, we need to stop relying on false solutions such as natural gas. It is a non-renewable fossil fuel resource and releases co-pollutants like methane, nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide. Exposure to these pollutants has severe respiratory effects, especially in those who already suffer from asthma, resulting in increased hospital visits.

Another problematic proposal in the CPP, is relying on the carbon market (cap and trade) as an incentive for coal-fired power plants to reduce their GHGs. To think within the framework of our current economic system, is not sustainable and further exacerbates the climate crisis. Any form of pollution commodification like carbon trading is no solution, and must not be entertained as such. Impacts of our current fossil fuel based economy, built on overconsumption, are heavily felt in low-income communities and communities of color, where climate change has had catastrophic effects, cost us lives and our cities millions of dollars in reconstruction and infrastructure costs.

In Region 2, environmental and public health injustices from dirty fossil fuel industries continue to overburden our most vulnerable communities, low-income communities of color. Environmental/Climate Justice leaders in NY and NJ demand that we go beyond the CPP and address issues of co-pollutants, natural gas facilities such as the Newark Energy Center, and three peaker power plants in Sunset Park, garbage incinerators, and aging coal fired-plants. We need to begin addressing real emissions reductions at the source and stop looking to false promises, which only allow for business as usual. The three peaker plants in Sunset Park are natural gas power plants and expose nearby residents to co-pollutants such as NOx and SOx, GHGs which can cause or worsen respiratory diseases and increase asthma related hospital visits. Not only is our community affected by daily exposure to these co-pollutants, but communities impacted by fracking suffer the disastrous consequences of this natural gas extraction process.

What is truly shocking is that even with the weakness in the CPP to really go after the dirty fossil fuel industry, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) has halted any progress by issuing a stay. This move sheds light on the essence of the up-hill battle we are up against. The decision also deflects and takes away from the climate justice argument that the CPP does not go far enough in efforts to reduce GHGs. If we have to put our efforts into getting a weak proposal back on the table, our movement for a radical change away from a fossil fuel based, extractive economy is interrupted and further delayed.

So while we await the results from the recent Supreme Court decision as environmental justice advocates we continue our efforts to implement the Our Power Plan and support real solutions to the dirty energy industry. We look to EPA Region 2 to commit to a continued conversation and actions to address dirty energy affecting the health and well-being of our communities. The EPA has an opportunity to do things differently, to really challenge climate change, why then propose weak solutions?

With real solutions like weatherization, wind and solar, within our reach let’s stop entertaining false promises that rely on business as usual instead of community-based solutions that can actually help us reach these very real goals of GHG reductions by 80% over the next 34 years. It is time to put into action a “Just Transition” away from an extractive economy and towards local renewable economies where communities struggling to hold onto homes, jobs, businesses, and livable ecosystems benefit from all at once. This is the real potential of the Clean Power Plan.

In order to ensure survival, communities who are currently at the frontline of the climate crisis know that we need to move away from the fossil fuel driven economy. While the EPA is taking small steps in the right direction, this glacial pace towards progress is dangerous for our communities. We cannot afford to entertain climate deniers or fossil fuel based industry representatives. Instead we need to be working towards a Just Transition, developing a system that is based on equity, based in real renewable energy solutions and not driven by profit over human and environmental health.

Ana Orozco is the Climate Justice Policy and Programs coordinator at UPROSE

Molly Greenberg is the Environmental Justice Policy Manager at Ironbound Community Corporation

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