By Alex Mulcahy
We can all breathe a sigh of relief upon hearing the news that the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery in Southwest Philly will be closing. And after we exhale, it might finally be safe to inhale again, too. Make no mistake, this is a huge victory for the residents of Philadelphia. PES has been a flagrant violator of environmental laws, and is the largest single source of toxic pollution in Philadelphia County. Ding dong, the witch is dead!
But whose victory is this? While the closure of this pollution machine is cause for celebration, it’s important to recognize the real cause of the closure. It wasn’t activism, or a sudden concern for the health of a community breathing dirty air everyday. It was money, and this should give us little comfort.
Philadelphia Energy Solutions was in financial shambles, according to “Beyond Bankruptcy: The Outlook for Philadelphia’s Neighborhood Refinery,” a report written by Christina Simeone for the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy at the University of Pennsylvania. PES filed for bankruptcy in January of 2018, and, given a large debt they had due in 2022, Simeone believed a second bankruptcy was inevitable. The tenuous nature of their finances and the cost to rebuild what had been damaged made closing the refinery the only logical decision.
Some might say that the market is recognizing the inefficiencies of fossil fuels (although, according to Kleinman’s report, this facility was particularly inefficient.) In the long run, it’s argued, the efficiency and relative safety of harvesting renewable energy will win because it is going to cost less. But what if it doesn’t? What if we get into a trade war with China, where 80% of the rare earth metals necessary for solar panels are mined, and they deny us access to the essential metals? Or what if competing industries, like smartphones, that rely upon these same metals make the costs spike? What if there are mining diasasters? Could fossil fuels make a comeback because they would cost less again?
Mayor Kenney has spent much time empathizing with those who will lose their jobs. It’s very sad indeed to lose your livelihood, the financial anchor of your life. But everyone who worked at PES deservesa better job. And no job should come at the expense of someone else’s health. As Councilperson-At-Large Helen Gym said, “No Philadelphian should have to wake up with their city on fire.” Economics did us a favor this time, but the market is more often malevolent than not. As we eye national elections, we need to make sure our leaders possess a moral compass, and that clean air and water are part of their vision. Letting the market decide our future is a passive and dangerous approach, even if it works out every once in a while.