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CCL Philly leads charge to convince Amtrak to scrap fossil fuel heating plan

A group of people stand shoulder to shoulder in a semi circle in a congressional office, smiling at the camera

Members of CCL Philadelphia pictured in a lobby meeting with Rep. Dwight Evans, June 2023

CCL Philly leads charge to convince Amtrak to scrap fossil fuel heating plan

By Charlotte Ward

When members of the Philadelphia chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby heard that rail giant Amtrak was planning to install gas-fired boilers in the city’s iconic 30th Street Station, they immediately saw an opportunity to advocate for electrification. 

Like many Citizens’ Climate chapters around the country, CCL Philly is working on building electrification and efficiency as climate solutions. Fossil fuel-powered heating and appliances contribute to global warming and also create air pollution that contributes to serious respiratory problems like asthma, particularly in children. CCL Philly’s Steering Committee made the case for electrification at the station so that commuters and the local community would be protected from the harmful effects of increased fossil fuel pollution from the proposed gas boilers.

Their efforts paid off. On November 16, Amtrak declared a significant reversal, deciding to eliminate the gas boilers from the project. Amtrak cited the persistent and insightful input of the local Citizens’ Climate Lobby chapter and Philadelphia’s Clean Air Council, alongside a coalition of other environmental organizations, as key to the change of plan.

How CCL Philly succeeded

Reflecting on CCL Philly’s success, Elaine Fultz, who led the advocacy efforts, says her chapter called on Amtrak to embrace green forms of energy as part of the chapter’s focus on electrification. 

She believes three key factors were pivotal in their success: collaboration with other environmental groups, direct advocacy targeted at Amtrak, and a consistent local media campaign.

Amtrak’s initial plan to install gas boilers came to CCL Philadelphia’s attention in June 2022. The group quickly joined forces with the Clean Air Council and formed a coalition of local environmental and climate organizations.

Four head shots

CCL Philadelphia volunteers Elaine Fultz, Keon Monroe, Don Campbell, and Karen Monroe were the chapter members most involved with the Amtrak effort

“Our steering committee articulated our concerns about Amtrak’s plans,” says Elaine. “In particular, we cast the new gas-driven heating equipment as an investment that would lock Amtrak into dependence on fossil fuels for decades. We also stressed that increased air pollution near the station would worsen its already high rate of respiratory diseases.”

The coalition worked to present their arguments against Amtrak’s planned fossil fuel investments in person, in letters, by petition, on social media, and in the press.

“Our in-person communication was low-key and respectful,” says Elaine. “Our letters to Amtrak focused on substantive arguments without strong rhetoric. We developed a petition and used social media to promote it and solicit signers from the community.”

Media outreach was a powerful tool

“Media was perhaps our most effective tool for communication,” shares Elaine. “From Amtrak’s perspective, a public disagreement with climate groups would not promote its image as a greener form of travel.”

In July 2022, the Clean Air Council authored an Inquirer opinion column criticizing the decision, and a letter to the editor by Elaine adding her own concern was printed three days later.

Amtrak’s Vice President, Dennis Newman, quickly responded to the newspaper promising readers that Amtrak would listen to the concerns of local organizations, review its plans, and make a decision in keeping with its sustainability goals. 

In December 2022, the coalition met with Amtrak officials and handed over a letter from 13 organizations. While Amtrak listened, they did not grant their requests for further meetings. So, the coalition continued with widespread advocacy.

Holding Amtrak to account

When, four months later, there had been no official update from the rail organization, Elaine and fellow CCLers Don Campbell, and Kate Rojas penned an LTE titled “Still Waiting,” reminding Amtrak publicly of its commitment. 

Finally, in November, an Amtrak public relations officer called Elaine to enthusiastically share the decision to scrap gas boilers in favor of more sustainable options. 

Then on November 24, Amtrak’s Executive Vice President of Strategy and Planning, Dennis Newman, wrote his own letter to the editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer. He wrote: 

As part of Amtrak’s redevelopment of William H. Gray III 30th Street Station, we initially planned to install natural gas boilers as a heat source for the renovations in the historic main hall. However, Amtrak has since established a corporate commitment to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, and the original plan did not align with that goal. 

Several external groups — including the Clean Air Council and Citizens’ Climate Lobby — shared their concerns about these planned gas boilers as they relate to Amtrak’s sustainability goals, local air quality, and emissions. We met with and listened to stakeholders, and they brought valuable external perspectives. At this point, we have decided to eliminate the gas boilers from this project.

Decisions like Amtrak’s have the potential to make a real difference in the U.S.’s efforts to lower the heat-trapping carbon pollution exacerbating climate change — a substantial 10% of the U.S.’s carbon emissions come from fossil fuels used to heat and run America’s buildings.

Empowering stakeholders to do the right thing

“The reversal occurred partly because there were well-placed change agents within the organization who take global warming seriously and take a long view of Amtrak’s role,” says Elaine. “Some touched base with us directly; we knew of others from informal reports, public seminars on topics like ESG, and internal Amtrak documents obtained by our coalition partners through FOIA requests.”  

“Knowing that there were strong friends of the environment within Amtrak encouraged us to keep communicating, hoping that our messages would help support and empower them. Referencing Amtrak’s own sustainability goals in our messages provided us, and them, with a strong base and leverage in our calls for change.”

A sense of pride for all

Generally, Amtrak has positively approached the about-turn, publicly celebrating the decision and thanking Citizens’ Climate Lobby for their advocacy. 

“All the officials with whom we have communicated seem pleased and proud of their decision — and so they should be,” adds Elaine. “Amtrak’s extraordinary change of plans is a credit to the institution, which now stands as a model for other federal, state, and local organizations that struggle to take account of global warming in their plans for the future.”

Now Elaine hopes the success will inspire other climate-concerned citizens to hold organizations to account.

“It’s a reminder that it’s not just big corporations that can lobby,” she says. “Citizens can lobby and can be successful with a persistent and respectful approach. It’s people power, pure and simple.”

Listen to Elaine, Keon, Don and Karen talk about this effort in their own words on this segment of the Planet Philadelphia radio show.