The economy as complement, not detriment, to environment

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — There can be tensions when a large company makes a multi-million-dollar deal with a community to build facilities. Tensions can be even higher if the company is a fossil fuel company.

In a situation like that, those who are for economic development can be viewed as in opposition to environmental protection. Those who want to preserve the environment can be viewed as anti-jobs. Additionally, there are those in the community whose voices are never heard, those who feel left out of the process.

Jennifer Baka, a cofunded faculty member in the Institutes of Energy and the Environment, understands these tensions. Growing up in a small coal mining town outside of Scranton, Pennsylvania, she saw how industry could affect an entire community.

"I’d like to help craft a new narrative that sees the economy and environment as complements."

— Jennifer Baka, assistant professor of geography

During Baka's childhood, a local coal mine was on fire. Community leadership debated how best to handle the fire, which wavered between committing resources to extinguish the fire or to allowing the fire to burn out. As the debate burned on, so did the fire. The resulting fumes and smoke caused adverse respiratory effects for many in the community, who never had a say in the decision-making process.

“I don’t want to forget how policy decisions shape lives, and I want to do my best to help minimize harm,” she said.

Today, Baka works to identify methods to foster synergies between environmental regulation and economic development. Her research not only solicits information from community members, but it informs and empowers people with data so they can be part of the conversation.

“The economy and the environment are too often cast as foes in policymaking,” said Baka, assistant professor in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences. “Unfortunately, we too often put the brakes on strengthening environmental regulations out of concern that it will translate into job losses. Yet, research shows that increasing environmental regulation has not resulted in widespread job losses across economic sectors. Thus, I’d like to help craft a new narrative that sees the economy and environment as complements.”

In a recent project, Baka has been studying the Shell Pennsylvania Petrochemicals Complex near Monaca, Pennsylvania (about 30 miles north of Pittsburgh). The complex, which is set to open in 2020, will use ethane extracted from natural gas to create plastic pellets.

The Shell Pennsylvania Petrochemicals Complex is located about 30 miles north of Pittsburgh, near Monaca and Beaver, Pennsylvania.

The Shell Pennsylvania Petrochemicals Complex is located about 30 miles north of Pittsburgh, along the Ohio River near Monaca and Beaver, Pennsylvania.


“The extractive industries are part and parcel of the Pennsylvania economy,” Baka said. “Yet, this doesn’t mean we have to repeat the history of economic development and environmental protection being in opposition.”

Baka is searching for ways to strategize on how to promote what Gov. Tom Wolf calls “responsible, well-regulated extraction.” She looks to achieve this through her expertise in political industrial ecology (PIE).

PIE is a blend of the fields of political ecology, the study of the environment through political, economic and social lenses; and industrial ecology, the study of industrial processes and their effects on the environment.

“I found that political ecology and industrial ecology think about environmental problems similarly. They both consider the broader impacts of a system, so I wanted to bring them together,” she said.

“Unfortunately, those who are most impacted by industrial development processes often have the least amount of political agency in the decision-making process.”

— Jennifer Baka

Her research involves both community engagement as well as analysis of an industrial process. In the case of the Shell Complex, Baka considers facets such as the plant’s capacity, the raw materials necessary to make the product, the transport of materials in and out of the plant and all of the communities that are involved geographically.

“It’s more than just the plant itself. It includes the pipelines and the infrastructure,” Baka said. “When you map that, it shows all of the communities and all of the geographic areas that are being impacted in some way.”

A boat pushes a barge down the Ohio River, which flows by the Shell Pennsylvania Petrochemicals Complex.

A boat pushes a barge down the Ohio River, which flows by the Shell Pennsylvania Petrochemicals Complex.


Baka then uses that “map” to show where industrial development could negatively impact the environment or communities. She also identifies areas that may benefit from development. Additionally, she can provide useful data that can assist with carbon footprint analysis and impact assessment.

“We start our community engagement work there,” Baka said. “I see it as the building-block science that is necessary to do empirically driven community outreach.”

Another focus of PIE is identifying the voiceless, people who do not have regular or equal access to political processes, said Baka.

“Unfortunately, those who are most impacted by industrial development processes often have the least amount of political agency in the decision-making process,” she said.

Baka said she hopes to foster sustained stakeholder dialog and build community relationships as a part of her research.

“I’m hoping that by fostering engaged dialog that we, as stakeholders, can collectively figure out strategies on how to promote ‘responsible, well-regulated extraction,’” she said.

This article was initially posted by

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