Hundreds of Pennsylvanians chanted, “We choose a better path, Governor Wolf,” on the steps of the capitol rotunda in Harrisburg on Friday before delivering a letter signed by hundreds more who are choosing a path to a more responsive government and a clean, renewable energy future. The event launched a new coalition of Pennsylvanians from fracking’s frontlines and grassroots who vow to forge that better path together.
They are the ones who are dismissed by their government. Sure, sometimes they’re cajoled or mollified, sometimes they’re called eco-terrorists and even spied on, but most of the time they’re ignored, dismissed. They are the ones who are relegated to sitting silently in the back of the room when their own fates, those of their families’ and of their properties’ are being discussed at the table and the ones who are removed and even arrested sometimes if they disobey. They are the ones who never have a seat at the table and know full well that it means they are on the menu.
In Pennsylvania, we don’t just have a fracking problem and a climate problem, we have a democracy problem.
You won’t find a single climate leader in the halls of Pennsylvania’s state government. Nobody has the guts to make the connection between climate change and fracking and call for a ban. The only political divide is over the severance tax on shale gas drilling that Democrats view as a panacea for the state’s perpetual budget crisis. In Pennsylvania, the only difference between Republicans and Democrats is that Republicans are willing to give away our health, safety, and natural resources while Democrats want to sell those things. The severance tax would be nothing more than the price of admission.
Governor Tom Wolf was the sole target of the coalition’s launch on Friday, however, because he has served as the salesman-in-chief for the shale gas industry since taking office. His legacy will be the work he did to enable the industry and expand the market for fossil fuels at exactly the time when most of the rest of the world was trying to figure out how to transition to clean renewable energy as quickly as possible.
Wolf told ABC27’s Matt Heckel, who covered the rally, “The fracking that we’re doing right now is creating the energy that’s gonna allow us to get to that renewable energy future.” In other words, natural gas is a bridge fuel. Yep, Governor Wolf is still hiding behind the debunked bridge fuel argument.
350.org founder Bill McKibben recently put the idea of shifting from coal and oil to gas and calling it progress this way, “…it’s as if we proudly announced that we kicked our Oxycontin habit by taking up heroin instead,” and said “Democrats don’t want to hear this — natural gas was their get-out-of-jail-free card. They could get credit for going after climate change without really requiring systemic change….”
It’s something I call Climate Denial, Democrat Style, but it’s not really Governor Wolf’s affliction. He has never seemed particularly interested in getting credit for going after climate change. His administration refers to a 100-year phase of natural gas extraction and says that every county will be affected by the infrastructure build-out that comes on its heels.
In fact, Governor Wolf has done everything he can to ensure that fracking will be around for a long, long time.
- In 2016, Wolf moved $24 million from an alternative energy fund to create the Pipeline Investment Program (PIPE) that provides grants for the construction of the last stretch of pipeline needed to make schools, hospitals, business, and entire communities natural gas customers. “’Since day one Governor Wolf has advocated for the creation of this program,’ said Department of Community and Economic Development Secretary Dennis Davin in a statement. ‘Today we’re finally able to celebrate its opening.’ The PIPE program is funded by shifting $12 million annually for the next two years from the state’s Alternative Energy Investment Act, which provided grants for clean energy projects,” StateImpact PA reported. Wolf said the money was moved from an underutilized green building program, but green building advocates said the eligibility requirements were too limited and that the program should have been fixed, not scrapped.
- Earlier that year, Wolf blogged about being part of the team that got Royal Dutch Shell to build its cracker plant in Beaver County. ‘Since first taking office, I have worked in close collaboration with my Secretary of Community and Economic Development Dennis Davin, the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance, local officials in Western Pennsylvania, and Royal Dutch Shell to make the proposed plant a reality,’ Governor Wolf said in a statement released on Tuesday.” Royal Dutch Shell received a record-setting $1.65 billion in tax breaks as part of that deal. By the way, cracker plants are facilities where fracked ethane molecules are cracked open to allow ethylene to be extracted and used to manufacture plastics, including the single-use plastics that are polluting oceans and killing aquatic life.
- The following year, Wolf commissioned a report that concluded that western Pennsylvania could support four more ethane crackers. ‘Pennsylvania has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to develop and implement a strategy that will cultivate a manufacturing renaissance and transform our economy across the Commonwealth,’ said Governor Wolf. ‘The foundation for building a diverse and robust petrochemical and plastics industry was initiated with the decision by Shell Chemicals to invest in Pennsylvania – and we must ensure that we make the most of this chance to create good paying jobs for Pennsylvanians,’ according to his website.
- Wolf’s attempts to expand the ethane business haven’t stopped there. He was a vocal supporter of Sunoco/Energy Transfer Partners’ Mariner East pipelines that are intended to move ethane to Marcus Hook for export to Scotland and Norway where they already have cracker plants. “Responding to a question from a reporter at an event hosted by the Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia last week, Gov. Wolf indicated he supports approval of the required state permits to build the controversial Mariner East 2 pipeline project,” StateImpact PA reported in January 2017. Texts exchanged between his Deputy Chief of Staff Yesenia Bane and Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Secretary Patrick McDonnell from December 2016 until four days before the agency approved the required permits on February 13, 2017 raise questions about whether the governor did more than express support publicly for the Mariner East 2 project. It was no secret that the project was deeply flawed, with lots of remaining deficiencies. More than 106 drilling mud spills have occurred since construction began, some that have contaminated private water supplies and, in one case, punctured an aquifer. More recently, sinkholes have opened up in multiple locations in Chester County.
- Wolf chose Bane to serve as his special assistant and eventually promoted her to Deputy Chief of Staff. When questions arose in 2016 about her dealings with oil & gas companies that were clients of her industry-lobbyist husband’s, Wolf’s office announced that he was changing her duties to remove work on oil & gas. Her text exchange with DEP chief McDonnell occurred after that, something that Wolf hasn’t explained. At present, Deputy Chief of Staff Bane is the subject of an ethics investigation for interactions she had with her husband’s clients.
- In September 2016, Bane represented Wolf at an industry conference in Pittsburgh. She told the audience that Wolf was willing to pressure NY Governor Cuomo to reverse his decision made months earlier to reject water quality permits for the Constitution pipeline. An audience member said he had never heard of a governor offering such a thing.
- Governor Wolf commissioned the Pipeline Infrastructure Task Force and put then-DEP Secretary John Quigley in charge. At the inaugural meeting, Quigley said the goal of the task force was to build public acceptance of the industry, not to protect the people and our environment from the industry.
- Wolf entered into a partnership in 2015 with the governors of Ohio and West Virginia to attract shale-related manufacturing to the region. “’We must work together to ensure our region has the skilled workforce necessary to fill jobs and attract new employers,’ Governor Wolf said. ‘The demand for workers by the energy industry and off-shoot industries, especially manufacturing, is high and still growing,’” StateImpact PA reported. The governors renewed their partnership earlier this year.
- Since he was sworn in, Wolf’s DEP has issued more than 6,000 drilling permits. In January, he announced he plans to speed up the permitting process. ““The governor said his objective was to enhance environmental protection, ‘and the way you do that is not by dragging your feet — it is not by making people really angry on the industry side with the time it takes to get permits,’” The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
- Wolf’s DEP has approved the vast majority of at least 48 new natural gas power plants planned for Pennsylvania. More power plants mean more pipelines. And all of it means more fracking.
Governor-elect Wolf wasn’t kidding in December of 2014 when he told reporters, responding to the news that New York had just banned fracking, that he considered the decision to be “unfortunate.” He has never been anything but enthusiastic about shale gas development. He has moved as fast in the wrong direction on climate change as people are told to run from their homes when the pipelines next to them explode. Bridge fuel, Governor Wolf? C’mon.
Pennsylvanians are choosing a better path, and not just the ones who rallied in Harrisburg or the more than 850 individuals and 60 organizations and counting that have signed the letter. Sixty nine percent of Pennsylvanians want energy policies that prioritize renewable energy over coal and gas, according to the results of a Franklin & Marshall poll published last month.
Fifty-five percent say that fracking’s environmental risks outweigh economic benefits. For many Pennsylvanians, the risks they once feared are now the realities they must face. On Friday, Physicians for Social Responsibility delivered to the governor and Attorney General Josh Shapiro copies of the 5th edition of the Compendium of Scientific, Medical, and Media Findings Demonstrating Risks and Harms of Fracking that cites the more than 1200 peer-reviewed studies that collectively make the case for a ban.
When Trump announced he was pulling the U.S. out of the Paris climate agreement, many governors, mayors, municipal governments, business, and institutions realized that they were going to have to lead on climate since it was clear the federal government wasn’t going to do it. Wolf was not among the governors who formed the U.S. Climate Alliance. He told StateImpact PA, “’We are actually doing things well beyond the climate agreement,’ Wolf said. ‘We are on target to exceed the Paris agreement on carbon. I’m not sure what is served by the symbolic gesture of signing on to something we’re already doing a better job on.’” Nonsense.
Pennsylvanians are realizing that they have neither the federal nor the state to rely on for leadership on climate, so they’re going to have to take the lead. And that’s exactly what they intend to do.
(The letter continues to gain signers, so we’re going to resubmit it at least one more time. Individuals can sign the letter here. Organizations can sign the letter here.)