This post is the third in a series recounting the history of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council on the occasion of PEC’s 50th anniversary. Read other stories here.
The turn of a new century brought with it growing concern within the scientific community over the manmade impacts of carbon emissions on climate. In 2000, Pennsylvania produced one percent of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions, ranking it fourth in the U.S. and among the top 25 carbon-emitting nations in the world. What’s more, Pennsylvania’s carbon emissions were projected to grow by roughly ten percent per decade. So it was no surprise that the Keystone State was readily seen as a place where carbon reductions could make a meaningful impact.
PEC’s 2007 report, “Pennsylvania Climate Change Roadmap,” was one of the very first policy documents addressing this issue specifically related to Pennsylvania.
The Climate Action Plan called for a series of measures aimed at reducing Pennsylvania’s greenhouse gas emissions to 25% below 2000 levels by the year 2025 and an 80% reduction from current levels by 2050. This plan set out bold goals for all sectors to begin the process of “decarbonizing” Pennsylvania’s economy, an initiative that would carry forward through the coming decade to which PEC remains committed today.
What were once outlier discussions about low-carbon fuels became more widespread and pervasive as PEC entered its fifth decade. Green energy alternative resources, such as wind turbines, began to populate the Appalachian ridges that bisect Pennsylvania. But the advent of a new form of underground drilling put a previously unattainable gas reserve within reach. The Marcellus Shale formation, a vast natural gas reserve stretching from western Virginia northeast to Marcellus, New York, potentially contained enough gas to meet U.S. demand for the next 40–50 years or more.
Recognizing the coming environmental impact of a burgeoning natural gas industry, PEC once again convened representatives from industry, government, and the environmental community at a conference to explore the potential impact and identify measures for effectively regulating the new unconventional gas industry.
The result of PEC’s 2010 study was a comprehensive report, “Developing the Marcellus Shale,” which included 15 specific recommendations for lawmakers to consider, most of which were adopted by the Governor’s Marcellus Shale Commission, which was referred to the General Assembly for consideration as legislation.
We wanted an organization… that was able to speak out and speak up without fear.
So has the upstart group of concerned Pennsylvanians that convened in 1970 lived up to the expectation of its founders?
What did they accomplish? And what has been PEC’s greatest contribution to environmental protection and stewardship in Pennsylvania?
“We wanted a statewide activist organization,” recalls founder Eleanor Winsor. “And we wanted an organization that was not a 501(c)(3), that was able to speak out and speak up without fear.”
She says it was the founders’ desire to be honest brokers of ideas and to be known for respecting other points of view as the bedrock for advocacy, a considerably different approach to the stridency of most environmental groups in 1970.
“People were willing to sit down and be pretty respectful with us,” she adds. “I think the model really came out of a belief in human decency and in scientific integrity.”
On that point, there’s universal agreement among her successors that has stood the test of time.
“The concept of civility underlies all of PEC’s activities for the past 50 years,” adds Paul King. I think it was a recognition that goes back to the Winsors that there were problems to be solved in a rational, scientific way and not hammered at.
“I think you do have to go back to that first 10 to 15 years, before I was president, to the Winsors and others who first breathed life into PEC as a different kind of organization. And we’ve been able to keep that spirit through the selection of good people and good board members.”
“I think that we took the conservation movement and brought it into the 21st century,” says Patrick Starr, executive vice president of PEC. “We charted a course that was practical, based upon an understanding of Pennsylvania and it’s unique character… seeking always what it is that we can attain that will protect and restore Pennsylvania’s environment in circumstances that are really complicated.”
Davitt Woodwell, who first joined PEC in 1991 and has served as its president since 2014, builds on Starr’s thoughts with the perspective of his legal training and time spent outdoors. Like Starr, he has been with PEC for more than half of its 50-year history. He points to PEC’s role in engaging a variety of stakeholders, including governors, public officials, government agencies, small business owners and multi-national advocacy groups to address the issues facing Pennsylvania.
“A critical tenet of our work is that we have the agility to work on what may seem like unconnected issues—including carbon pricing, trail development, stormwater control, reforestation, and decarbonizing natural gas—and weave them together through the lens of overall stewardship of our Commonwealth,” he says.
“Whether we are pushing for specific language in a bill in the General Assembly or showing a high school student how to plant a white pine seedling on formerly mined land, it’s all about stewarding the environmental and conservation future of Pennsylvania. It’s about building interest in environmental issues and working to ensure an ongoing legacy of citizens committed to making sure that the issues we care about receive a fair and informed hearing.
“We are not confrontational,” he adds, “but we want to make sure that there is an environmentally literate and engaged group of Pennsylvanians always ready to have the hard discussions about balancing interests and protecting the values of Penn’s Woods.”