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Climate activists pressure Dems

An activist movement that aims to stop a climate crisis has launched an attack on Gov. Tom Wolf’s signature economic plan, while its allies across the country ramp up pressure on Democratic presidential hopefuls to address climate change.

The Sunrise Movement — a group of mostly young activists who challenge politicians in headline-grabbing protests and rallies — has pushed some lawmakers to drop their sponsorship of Wolf’s Restore Pennsylvania initiative. Wolf’s $4.5 billion plan would expand internet access, disaster relief and infrastructure across the state, with funds coming from a proposed so-called severance tax on natural gas drillers.

The legislation would “lock PA into a dangerous fracking future,” the Philadelphia branch of the movement posted on twitter this month. In mid-August, activists with the Sunrise Movement met with state Rep. Brian Sims, D-Philadelphia, and soon announced he would end his cosponsorship of a Restore Pennsylvania bill.

Two House and two Senate cosponsors have dropped their sponsorships since environmental activists began meeting with lawmakers on the issue, the Penn Capital-Star reported. The bills to put Wolf’s plans into action have cosponsors in both parties, although no local lawmakers are among them.

“Restore Pennsylvania will provide funding for infrastructure that helps build manufacturing facilities and other downstream businesses for the natural gas produced in Pennsylvania,” an official website on the program says, “while helping businesses and individuals use more of Pennsylvania’s natural gas in their homes, creating jobs, lowering costs and improving energy efficiency.”

A Franklin & Marshall College poll released in early August showed nearly 70 percent of Pennsylvania voters approve of a statewide infrastructure plan funded by natural gas taxes, although the question did not describe the plan in detail.

Wolf has faced pressure from Republicans who oppose additional taxes on natural gas drilling. But, like many elected Democrats, he also has to contend with increasing pressure from environmental groups and left-wing activists who say officials aren’t taking climate change seriously.

The Sunrise Movement has made waves in its short history here: During Wolf’s re-election campaign, his opponent, Republican Scott Wagner, called a member of the group “young and naive” in a widely publicized exchange. Rose Strauss, the activist involved, soon turned her attention to Wolf and publicly questioned his own donations from fossil fuel companies.

The activists — who list “hubs” in Pittsburgh, Boalsburg, Lewisburg and many other cities — have set their sights on the Democratic establishment as a crowded field fights to challenge President Donald Trump in 2020.

Several young Sunrise Movement members were arrested in July outside of the former offices of the state Democratic Party, calling for a presidential debate focused solely on climate policy. More protesters appeared at the Democratic National Committee meeting in San Francisco last week, demanding a climate debate. The committee ultimately voted against the measure.

While Democratic presidential hopefuls appear unlikely to meet for a climate debate, the issue has drawn increasing attention from the candidates. Most recently, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., issued a sweeping $16 trillion plan Thursday to declare a climate emergency, hire millions of workers and replace fossil fuel infrastructure with renewable energy sources.

The same week, presidential hopeful and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee dropped out of the race, having focused almost solely on climate since joining the crowded field. Inslee’s brief campaign drew praise from other candidates for its single-minded focus on climate change.

While plans like Wolf’s appear popular in Pennsylvania, voters nationwide — particularly those who identify as Democrats — agree with many of the tenets of the “Green New Deal” supported by Democratic candidates like Sanders. A Morning Consult poll released in April showed a majority of voters, and large majorities of Democrats, back deadlines to eliminate fossil fuels and carbon emissions.

Rail study could herald new service

Passenger rail advocates have taken an interest in a legislative hearing this week in Altoona aimed at train service across the state.

Western Pennsylvanians for Passenger Rail, whose representatives are slated to attend the hearing, said the state Department of Transportation has secured funding to reimburse Norfolk Southern for a study on additional train routes. Norfolk Southern controls the tracks used by Amtrak trains that pass east and west through Altoona.

Such a study could represent a key step in expanding rail service through the city.

A similar effort recently allowed for new rail service in Virginia, Western Pennsylvanians for Passenger Rail President Mark Spada noted in an email to supporters.

“The process of (Norfolk Southern) conducting a study is similar to the one in Virginia that resulted in new passenger rail service to Roanoke in October 2017,” he said. “That city had not seen passenger trains since the inception of Amtrak in May 1971.”

State Rep. Lou Schmitt, R-Altoona, praised the possibilities new rail service could bring in a news release earlier this month.

“Imagine increased rail service between Pittsburgh and Altoona,” Schmitt said. “Folks could conveniently take the train into Pittsburgh for work, or to attend sporting and cultural events from their homes in any number of the smaller communities along the line.”

The hearing is set for 3 p.m. Wednesday at the Railroaders Memorial Museum.

Ryan Brown can be reached at rbrown@altoonamirror.com

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