Baka awarded fellowship to study impact of petrochemical plant on community

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Jennifer Baka, assistant professor in the department of geography, has been at Penn State for a little more than a year but she has a lifetime of experience assessing the implications of energy.

She grew up in a coal mining region of Northeastern Pennsylvania, and watching the relationship a rural community has with a global enterprise factored into her choice to become an energy geographer. It’s a field that combines political and industrial ecology to look at how energy projects impact all segments of society.

“Being from a former coal-mining area is what motivated me to go into energy policy,” Baka said. “It’s not this black-and-white issue where coal is bad and renewables are good. There are tradeoffs. I’m trying to investigate into what those tradeoffs are and how they impact communities.”

Baka’s research will get a boost because she was recently named a Ryan Faculty Fellow, an endowment that comes with three years of supplemental research funding.

As a second wave of fracking begins to develop, Baka will study how a petrochemical plant (known as an ethane cracker) under construction near Pittsburgh will impact the nearby community. The plant breaks oil and gas into smaller molecules to create ethylene, which is used in plastics manufacturing.

“The plastics are a value-added product for the natural gas industry,” Baka said. “The last couple of years, a lot of the fracking wells have been idled in the state because the price of gas is so low. This is creating a new market for that gas, which can increase the price of gas and restimulate the economy.”

The endowment will largely fund undergraduate and graduate researchers with a smaller portion going to environmental impact software. 

The plant, which is creating several thousand temporary jobs and will create roughly 600 permanent jobs when it opens in the early 2020s, is being built in an area that once housed an aluminum smelter. Baka will assess if the labor force has the transferable skills needed for these jobs. Other factors she will look at include environmental impact, gains for the industry and how that affects the global price of energy, and how tax breaks impact the business and the community. 

Baka spent the summer piecing together the factors that will potentially impact various stakeholders in the plant project. The fellowship will allow her to dig more deeply into what she calls a political-industrial ecology analysis, which means mapping out the entire supply chain but then looking at the actual environmental footprint of the plant and the associated infrastructure.

“We’re trying to gain a really broad overview of the different stakeholder perspectives,” Baka said. We want to assess who is supportive, who is opposed to the project. We’re ultimately going to build an impact assessment framework that would look at the affects across different stakeholder groups and across different impact categories that combine economic, social and environmental health. This type of impact assessment is very integrated.”

Baka said she enjoys looking at complex problems with so many moving parts because the solutions can impact so many people in terms of jobs, the economy, the environment and energy use.

“A lot of times energy issues get overlooked until we have a price spike or a crisis,” Baka said. “But it’s important to understand and study energy even in times of low energy prices because it’s such a core component of our economy. How can you get through the day without using some form of energy?”

Before joining Penn State, Baka was an assistant professor of geography and environment at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She earned her doctorate in environmental studies from Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies in 2012.

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Last Updated September 28, 2017