From championing the cause of retraining miners to finding common ground in the public commons, veteran environmentalist Larry Schweiger thinks there are plenty of ways environmentalists can reach out beyond their base. But the head of PennFuture says citizens also have to be more engaged than ever if they want progress on environmental issues under the incoming administration.
The Allegheny Front: Since the election, we’ve been hearing a lot about how people in rural places that voted for President-elect Trump felt left out of the economy. And one issue that PennFuture tackles is converting our fossil fuel system into one based more on renewable energy. So here in Pennsylvania, what does that mean for some of your issues where the environment and economy interface, like renewable energy or fracking?
Larry Schweiger: We’re working on both sides of this issue—one, to address the risk of fracking, particularly in communities where we locate these wells next to residential areas and people are exposed to high levels of methane and other contaminants. We also are looking at ways that we can help the mining community transition to the future. We’ve been lobbying for a federal program. In 1977, there was a mining law passed that put a 10-cent charge on coal. And that money has been building up over the years, and we think it ought to be redeployed—in large part—to help these mining communities make that transition. But beyond that, clean energy—wind and solar and all the other technologies that are folded into the clean energy economy—needs to be advanced. And I think we ought to be [retraining] miners to do a lot of this work. They can install solar panels and they can do a lot of these things. And it’s important that we recognize that while coal has served the nation well for hundreds of years, it’s now time to go to a new place, because we’ve hit the limits of how much we can put in the sky.
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AF: But how do you get that message across to people who are working in coal jobs or want to go back to coal jobs?
LS: There is this myth that clean energy has caused the coal industry to collapse, when in fact, it is the gas industry that has rapidly expanded with low-cost frack gas. And the other part of the problem is we celebrate the number of jobs available in fracking, but we don’t recognize that we’re seeing a rapid increase in the number of jobs in the clean energy world. I think we need to be shifting our message to look at what’s changing in our world. And what’s changing in our world is that solar costs are coming down dramatically, wind costs are coming down as the size of the turbines scale and as we learn more about how to manage these two energy sources. So we need to talk about how this makes economic sense as well as environmental sense. It’s not about one against the other. It’s about a double bottom line in this case.
AF: Are you going to be changing anything about your organization or how you’re mobilizing based on the election results? Or are you staying the same course as you would have if Hillary Clinton had become president?
LS: We’re not going to reinvent the organization in terms of where we’re headed. I think what we have to do is help target these constituency groups that voted for Barack Obama that did not vote for Hillary. I do believe that it’s important for us to be reaching to the right. As a former Republican committeeman, I know what the Republican Party used to look like, and I hope at some point we can help draw them back to a place where we can meet in the middle—like former Senator John Heinz, [who was] a very concerned environmental leader as well as someone who represented the Republican Party.
AF: And other than renewable energy and climate change, what other Trump administration policies will you be watching?
LS: We’re concerned about what the administration might want to do with public lands. The U.S. is blessed with incredible public lands in the West and in Alaska and—to a certain extent—here in the East. And those lands need to be carefully managed according to their original intent. There is a growing chorus of folks who would like us to just give away our public lands to the states or ranchers who have been leasing these public lands for years. That’s not the right thing for us to do. Our public lands need to remain public, and we’re going to be paying close attention to how that’s handled. There’s been discussion of retreating on the wetlands protection provisions in the Clean Water Act. Speaker Paul Ryan, for example, put it at the top of his list. The U.S. Congress, back in 1972, passed the Clean Water Act overwhelmingly with Section 404 to protect wetlands. At that time, they understood that by creating and protecting these wetland buffers, you could keep the water in the rivers and drinking water safer by filtering out the pollutants. Wetlands have an enormous value to downstream communities because they buffer storms, they capture nutrients and keep the waters clean.
AF: You’ve been working on environmental issues for a long time. What have you learned over that time that gives you hope—or at least helps prepare you for the next four years?
LS: Let’s start with the American public: I believe very strongly that most Americans are concerned with the proper care of their air, water and the special places in their life. And they’re concerned about their children’s future. I think that is a common theme. And it’s time that the American voters not just vote on election day but become much more engaged. I’m hopeful that will happen. You know, we saw that back in the Reagan administration, when James Watt was Secretary of Interior. He had a belief that public resources ought to be sold to the highest bidder. He was very active in undermining the traditional programs in Washington. And the American people demanded change. So President Reagan was able to respond to that by dealing with the ozone hole, and became the president that called for the elimination of lead in gasoline—something he was originally opposed to. So I’ve seen it before, and I’m hopeful that with enough public pressure, the incoming administration will in fact reshape its promises to fit reality and address these concerns. But it’s up to us. And it won’t happen if we don’t speak up.
Larry Schweiger is president of PennFuture—an environmental advocacy organization in Pennsylvania.