For over a year, Food & Water Watch and our allies in Green Justice Philly -- a coalition of over 25 environmental, community, and labor organizations--have been battling fracking interests over a stretch of publicly-owned land on the waterfront called Southport.
This November, the coalition was gearing up for what seemed like the biggest round of the battle, pressuring the state agency responsible for approving the final plan. But then, right before the holiday break, came the amazing news: responding directly to our campaign, the governor announced that Southport would take a greener path with a $300 million investment in expanding the port’s storage facilities instead of more fracking infrastructure.
All along, we knew that the Southport decision would have real consequences for the future of Philadelphia. When we started our campaign, the leading contender for securing the land was Philadelphia Energy Solutions (PES). The company was investing significant resources and wooing local lawmakers to create a massive dirty energy expansion project on our waterfront. The company’s existing refinery is already responsible for the vast majority of toxic emissions in the city; allowing it to grow even larger would mean more toxic emissions in a city already suffering some of the worst air quality in the country. Our shocking asthma epidemic is most acutely felt among low-income communities of color, the people who live closest to the refinery. This was a major opportunity to stop the fossil fuel industry and instead open the door to a future of stable, family-supporting jobs that won’t kill the planet.
The odds were long, but the communities affected by industry pollution fought back, saying that they refused to continue to bear the deadly burdens of fossil fuel pollution. Several organizations rooted in the affected communities, such as Action United, One Pennsylvania, and Philly Thrive, were major parts of the coalition which was victorious. The coalition also made common cause with local labor unions, who see responsible development at Southport as a way to build quality jobs and a sustainable future for the city.
On November 22, Green Justice Philly delivered that message loud and clear at a Philadelphia Regional Port Authority (PRPA) Board Meeting, where dozens gathered to appeal to the agency to choose good jobs and public health over fossil fuel profits. This was the final action in a long string of efforts that had steadily increased pressure on the PRPA board.
Our pressure worked, and we didn’t need to wait long to get an answer. That afternoon, Governor Tom Wolf announced a $300 million plan to increase shipping capacity at the port. That means no expansion of the refinery, and no new fracked gas infrastructure at Southport. As community leader Sheree Arnold--from Southwest Philadelphia, in the shadow of the refinery--put it, “Today, I told the PRPA about how toxic pollution affects communities of color in Philadelphia. Literally an hour after taking action, the PRPA rejected fossil fuel expansion at Southport. This proves that when we stand up together and fight, we win.”
Knowing that the door to green jobs future could be opened—even if just a crack—through a victory at Southport was our rallying cry. Putting jobs before the oil and gas industry, especially jobs that were high-paying and community supporting, would be a major win for Philadelphia.
We went forward with an inside and outside strategy. Along with our allies, we lobbied, had conversations with the PRPA, attended public meetings, and worked closely with our legislators. But we also knew that it wasn’t about convincing those in power to do what was right. We needed to show them what actual Philadelphians wanted, and we needed to challenge them to confront the choice that they faced. So we organized public demonstrations, rallies, and packed the board room. We knew that is was about generating escalating pressure on the PRPA.
This isn’t a total victory. We were fighting for Southport to be developed as a truly modern shipping terminal, which would have created an estimated 8,000 direct jobs. In a city where 25% of the population lives below the poverty line, choosing to not create those jobs would have been an act of serious negligence. We know that the future we’re fighting for needs to be one for everyone, and that means high paying jobs that support our most vulnerable communities.
As climate change accelerates and its effects become more visible year after year, we are still have a lot of work to do to transition away from fossil fuels. But our victory at Southport distills something that we all already knew: We have victories to win, and we have to go out and win them. The battle may not be over, but this is a big step in the right direction to developing a more stable and just future for Philadelphia.