This weekend the story broke that Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf was negotiating with state legislative leaders for another attempt at bailing out the petrochemical industry to the tune of billions of dollars over decades. To understand a bit better what’s going with the petrochemical industry, let’s wind back time a bit and look at the oil and gas industry as a whole in the western Pennsylvania region.
Chevron announced in December 2019 that it is planning to leave the Coraopolis/Moon area and lay off hundreds, and is one of many fossil fuel companies planning to leave the whole Appalachian region in 2020. They’ve determined fracking isn’t profitable, and so are packing up shop and cutting jobs in the region. Some candidates have spread misinformation about the number of fracking jobs that exist in the state – it isn’t 100,000, but more like 5,000 direct jobs total in the whole state, maybe 20,000 if you include supplementary jobs. But fracking or not, the truth is that fossil fuels as a whole are facing a large global downturn, which contributed to Pennsylvania’s outlook as one of nine states facing economic contraction in early 2020.
And this was all before COVID-19, which only further exposed how financially weak the fracking industry is as oil and gas prices slide. Fracking is already on very fragile ground and dragging down local economies, and there are serious questions about how wise it was for officials to bet our state’s economic future on the failing fracking and petrochemical industry.
This is why the industry has been desperate to beg for a public bailout – they want the people of Pennsylvania and ultimately the planet to shoulder the financial, health and environmental costs of their industry just to keep their profits up. The proposed bailout originally came in the form of House Bill 1100 (HB 1100) which would have given billions of dollars away over decades to attempt to “lure” more petrochemical industry to the state. It would have spent a lot of money to tie our state to fracking and plastics for decades, at precisely the time when we need to be transitioning away from fossil fuels for health and climate reasons, and increasingly economic reasons too.
A recent townhall highlighted many of the problems with HB 1100. Among those testifying was Nick Muller, a Carnegie Mellon economist, presented evidence that the health costs of petrochemicals far outweighed any economic benefit. Laura Dagley, a nurse and medical advocacy coordinator for Physicians for Social Responsibility, further advised that Allegheny County’s already notoriously bad air quality will only get worse with petrochemical development, which will in turn increase instances of asthma and lung diseases like cancer in the general population and our children. KDKA recently highlighted a number of stories about Allegheny County’s poor air quality violating federal standards, and that’s before petrochemicals will make it worse.
Barbara W. Brandom, a retired pediatric anesthesiologist and a member of Physicians for Social Responsibility, reiterated a lot of these points in a recent article that called out the devastating health impacts to fracking workers, communities exposed to fracking and petrochemicals, and damage by the industry to the planet as a whole. More details on the toxins and health impacts of petrochemicals is available, and research shows that “the impacts of U.S. petrochemical pollution are borne disproportionately by poor communities and communities of color”. Petrochemical plants must be fed gas via pipelines, and those pipelines are prone to catching fire and even exploding, putting communities at even further risk. As COVID-19 spreads, construction sites are becoming hotspots for the virus, and yet fossil fuels are not moving to protect workers; Shell in fact made it pretty clear they expect workers to keep working on the petrochemical “cracker plant” in Beaver County despite several workers recently testing positive for COVID-19. Maybe Shell is in a rush to finish the project because of recent studies showing that “cracker plants” are increasingly a bad investment, continuing a theme of putting their profits over the safety and lives of workers, communities, and the health of our planet itself.
We’re also learning that fracking releases large amounts of methane, a carbon-based greenhouse gas that actually has a greenhouse effect much stronger than carbon dioxide. In fact, fracking seems to be leaking methane 16x more than originally reported by the state and fracking companies. “The proposed rules are not intended to be part of a plan to phase out fossil fuels. To the contrary, they are intended to put a happy face on continued and even expanded methane production. “Look, we’ve made fracking safe,” is the dangerous, false, and unacceptable implication.” from Better Path Coalition letter.
Of course, the industry doesn’t want folks talking about all of this, which is why the industry has been behind the scenes pushing un-constitutional anti-protest laws in states all across the country, including Pennsylvania. These laws, if passed, would make protesting a pipeline or a “cracker plant” a felony just for being there, even if the protest is completely peaceful and nothing happens. Apparently the fracking industry has no interest in respecting our rights to free speech and assembly either; they’d rather threaten us with arrest and keep the damage caused by their industry secret.
While HB 1100 was initially vetoed by Governor Wolf, Wolf made a statement at the time of the veto saying he was only vetoing this bill as a general package, but was still open to negotiating petrochemical and fracking subsidies in the future on a case by case basis. As such, we’re finding out now that the Governor is working with state legislative leaders to reintroduce a version of HB 1100 by adding it to an unrelated bill House Bill 723 (HB 723). Legislative leaders could introduce an amendment that brings back fracking and petrochemical bailouts as soon as Monday, so it is critical we share what’s going on, understand the context, and resist. The new HB 723 would still contain most of the same provisions that threaten our health and planet as previously included in HB 1100. The Democratic and Republican Parties must understand that our health and our planet cannot take the back seat any more. There is a grassroots petition to the legislature and governor asking them to stop this effort; I encourage folks to sign on to this petition, but also caution that the situation isn’t going to change until we really resist. One way to do it is to support Green Party campaigns for office like my own; the Green Party as a whole supports banning fracking and transitioning away from fossil fuel usage.
What does a “transition away from fossil fuels” mean? I believe our public resources should go directly to the people instead of bailing out fossil fuels. I propose a statewide Pennsylvania Green New Deal, modeled on the Green Party’s national Green New Deal plan, that will replace the oil and gas jobs leaving our region with THOUSANDS of good jobs in green infrastructure and renewable energy, doing important work like including overhauling our public water systems to ensure every family has clean, safe drinking water. A lot of work needs to be done upgrading ancient infrastructure and cleaning up our environment, and all that work creates good jobs for us. It’s a win-win. And at a time when COVID-19 is leaving many people without work, what better time is there to put people to work rebuilding the infrastructure our state and country needs?
Some will worry about costs of a Green New Deal. Firstly, the costs to our health and planet will be far greater the longer we refuse to transition. It’s much more expensive to wait than it is to tackle a problem now, and climate change and cancer-causing pollution are only going to cost more lives and much more money if we wait. Secondly, though, Pennsylvania currently spends billions of dollars subsidizing the fossil fuel industry in various ways. Shell for example was given $1.6 billion in subsidies, just for an estimated 600 long-term jobs at the “cracker plant” in Beaver County. That’s over $2 million PER JOB, but certainly the workers aren’t being paid that much, nearly all that money just went straight to executives’ and investors’ wallets – surely we could better spend that public money on green infrastructure instead and create more jobs! I propose that this money that is already in the budget be transferred from fossil fuels to renewable energy spending. Instead of bailing out fossil fuel companies, let’s invest that money in solar panels, wind turbines, and geothermal residential heating and cooling so we can completely replace oil and gas in our everyday lives. Fossil fuels nationwide are already begging for trillions of dollars in bailouts due to COVID-19, why not spend all that money on a Green New Deal instead? We can anticipate cost savings too as we switch to renewable energy, and it becomes cheaper and cheaper as it is installed at scale.
When I ran for state representative in 2018, I was appalled to learn that Chevron was a “sponsor” of the Earth Day event in Moon Township when I went out to a campaign event. (In fact that Earth Day event led to the arrest of my wife who was speaking out against Chevron’s presence in the park that day; Moon Township pressed criminal charges on her for protesting, and we’re still two years later trying to defend her right to free speech against Moon police’s actions in court.) I hope those Moon officials are reconsidering their stances, and will join me in demanding a Green New Deal for the people of the southwestern Pennsylvania – as well as dropping any further attempt at prosecuting my wife on behalf of Chevron for exercising her rights to protest the fracking and petrochemical industry.
UPDATE: 7/12: Garret started a petition specifically to state representative Anita Kulik to oppose HB 732.
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