EdBoard: CMU wants petrochemicals in our future

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As the West Coast continues to burn, we are reminded that despite the new challenges 2020 has thrown our way, climate change continues to press upon the health and well-being of our environment in mortally pressing ways. From savage wildfires to rising sea levels, it is impossible to dispute the reality of climate change or its devastating consequences, both present and generational.

In response to the problem of climate change, the city of Pittsburgh has taken some steps in the right direction, such as reducing fossil fuel usage, setting a goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50% within the next 10 years, and passing an ordinance in 2016 requiring all building owners with 50,000 square feet or more of property to report energy and water usage. This last initiative is particularly noteworthy, as it intends to use the gathered data to incentivize property managers to lower energy consumption by giving prospective tenants the ability to compare energy costs between different locations, hopefully sparking competition to lower energy usage and energy bills. Data for 2017 and 2018 have already been released, and data for 2019 is being prepared for release.

As a Pittsburgh institution, Carnegie Mellon was included in this analysis. Compared to other universities like Duquesne University and University of PIttsburgh, our campus is by far the most energy inefficient, even after a 70% reduction in energy use since 2005. In 2018 alone, Carnegie Mellon emitted 30,000 more tons of greenhouse gases than the University of Pittsburgh.

A troubling statistic on its own, the energy inefficiency of Carnegie Mellon’s campus goes right to the heart of the university’s contradictory messaging on climate change and other controversial issues. It is clear that Carnegie Mellon goes to great lengths to make it seem like they care about the environment, with multiple research and educational initiatives centered around creating technologies to combat climate change. And when the campus expands, the environmental impact of such an expansion is taken into account, such as when the Tepper Quad was designed in such a way that it was deemed energy efficient enough for a LEED Gold Certification. The message of environmental conservatism is not lost on Carnegie Mellon, and the administration does its best to project a favorable image in this respect.

Yet, for all the good the university seemingly does, it is undeniable that Carnegie Mellon participates in dealings that are counterproductive to combating climate change, and recent reporting from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette gives yet another example of this hypocritical behavior. In collaboration with city economic development officials, Carnegie Mellon tried to impress ExxonMobil executives, hoping to convince them to invest in another petrochemical plant in Western Pennsylvania similar to the Shell cracker plant in Beaver County.

It does not take a climate scientist to see that another petrochemical plant is the last thing we need right now, but the university is signaling an intent to push the region away from sustainable energy sources. Any organization opting, even in part, to accelerate the trends of climate change experienced locally and across the United States is culpable for the destruction of our future.

What’s particularly frustrating about this is that Carnegie Mellon is not some powerless entity being strong-armed into these negotiations by special interests or powerful corporations. For better or worse, Carnegie Mellon is a prestigious university with significant resources, and with that comes the ability to affect real change. And yet, acting of its own volition, the university is choosing to help secure further investments in petrochemicals, which cause significant harm to the surrounding environment with the potential for lasting impacts across the world.

It is not even the case that Carnegie Mellon has never worked with renewable energy companies before. According to Steve Guenther, the assistant vice president for Facilities Management and Campus Services, Carnegie Mellon currently buys a significant portion of its energy from a wind farm based in Illinois. Enough energy, in fact, that it would have reduced the reported greenhouse gas emissions by half had it been included in the city’s data analysis. Still, energy credits do not stop Carnegie Mellon from burning natural gas to power the whole campus.

So it is clear that Carnegie Mellon recognizes the feasibility of renewable energy and takes strides towards incorporating it into its own internal workings, but they are unwilling to stray from the beaten path, all in the name of economic interests and money. As usual, it is money above ethics, and it is this same attitude we see reflected in decisions such as increasing tuition year over year, refusing to lower tuition fees for students during the pandemic, refusing to switch to all virtual classes, and pandering to military collaborations for big dollars from the U.S. government. With every misguided decision, we are reminded again that at its core, Carnegie Mellon functions more like a corporation than a place of higher education, funded in large part by students.

That is not to say that Carnegie Mellon is incapable of doing good things. We have world-class research facilities and talented students and faculty who truly care about climate change and who leverage the resources of the university towards solving problems that will bring us another step closer to a more sustainable future. Rather than continuing this two-faced attitude, Carnegie Mellon should invest in local renewable energy companies, not ExxonMobil, and they should make campus more energy efficient in every way possible.

Now is not the time for grand, empty gestures or “voluntary university reviews” that say little about concrete climate action, and it is beyond time for an unequivocal denial of petrochemicals and unsustainable energy sources by the administration. It is never easy to break from the mainstream, but for an institution that prides itself on innovation, discovery, and the courage to foray into the unknown, it is long overdue.