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'Symbolic' resolution sparks controversy over climate change solutions in New Castle County

Sophia Schmidt, Delaware Public Media
Students rallied for climate action in Newark last fall

New Castle County residents debated the best way to deal with climate change last week.

The discussion was prompted by a County Council resolution urging Congress to pass the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act, which would put a fee on fossil fuels and distribute dividends to the American people. The bill has been stalled in a House subcommittee for a year and a half. 

The resolution sponsored by New Castle County Councilwoman Dee Durham does not have the force of law. All it does is express Council’s opinion. 

But before it passed by just one vote Tuesday, it prompted a long discussion among council members and members of the public—from teenagers to retired scientists to union representatives. 

“What putting a price on carbon really means is just taking responsibility to help mitigate the costs of what my generation is going to have to face,” said Eleri Phillips, a senior at St. Andrews School and a co-leader of the school’s Citizens’ Climate Lobby chapter.

Phillips framed the transition from fossil fuel to clean energy jobs as inevitable.

“While the resolution is just a symbolic act, it's still extremely meaningful to us,” said Phillips. “Climate action is something that my generation is definitely paying attention to and voting on at all levels of government, because we see it as deeply connected to social justice and our economic futures.” 

Durham, the resolution’s sponsor, said she has personally seen the effects of climate change in Delaware. 

“With the way that we don’t have winters anymore, with the change of plant species,” she said. “We’re already seeing sea level rise impacts along the coast.”

More than half of respondents to astate surveylast year said they’d personally experienced or observed local effects of climate change. 47 percent said they'd personally experienced sea level rise, 19-point increase from the state's 2014 climate survey.

Delaware is one of the lowest lying states in the country. Environmental officials say the state has already experienced more than a foot of sea level rise since 1900.

“This is just a resolution, with no force of law,” said Durham Tuesday. “But we do need Congress to take action, to do something along these lines.”

Opponents of the resolution claimed a carbon fee would kill jobs in the energy sector. 

“We have to lower our carbon footprint, but fossil fuel will always be a part of it, to what I see,” said John Bland, business manager of Boilermakers Local 13, which represents workers in construction, repair, maintenance and manufacturing. 


Bland expressed doubt that wind and solar power industries can be economically viable long term. He said he believes the solution to climate change lies in carbon capture and storage. 

“We have good jobs here at the refinery,” said Councilman Kenneth Woods. “It took a lot to reopen that refinery, and this act will put another burden on and another tax.”

Councilman Bill Bell said he supports the concept behind the carbon fee bill, but prioritizes current jobs. 

 “But at the end of the day, at this point in time, I’ve got to try to maintain the jobs and the employment that is within the 12th District in the various industrial sections,” he said. 

“People can be retrained,” Durham countered. “Young people coming up, just starting out in the job market can be taught new jobs that are more sustainably oriented.”

Councilman Penrose Hollins, who voted in favor of the resolution, said he didn’t understand the controversy around the resolution. 

“I don’t connect the dots to a single job,” Hollins said. “We’re part of a much larger universe.” 

Bell, along with council members Janet Kilpatrick, Timothy Sheldon, David Tackett and Kenneth Woods declined to support the resolution, voting merely ‘present.’ Councilman George Smiley abstained from voting. 

Last week the state announced it issuing 30 fossil fuel companies and a trade association for climate change damages. Only a handful of states have filed similar suits.

Sophia Schmidt is a Delaware native. She comes to Delaware Public Media from NPR’s Weekend Edition in Washington, DC, where she produced arts, politics, science and culture interviews. She previously wrote about education and environment for The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, MA. She graduated from Williams College, where she studied environmental policy and biology, and covered environmental events and local renewable energy for the college paper.
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