Last week, for the third year in a row, I attended the annual Shale Insight fracking conference in Pittsburgh. The opening keynote speaker was Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, who boasted that he will continue “aggressive” deregulatory courses of action. He bragged that the Trump administration has passed 28 deregulatory actions and that there are 49 more are in the pipeline.
Wheeler Made Shameful Pro-Fracking Statements
Wheeler made the ridiculous comment to the audience that environmental groups don’t understand that methane is a “main product, not a byproduct.” For the record, Administrator Wheeler, I – like numerous other environmentalists – am well aware that natural gas is primarily composed of methane, that it is used for electricity generation, and that it is a significant contributor to climate change. Science shows that methane is more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the short term, and that methane leaks from oil and gas industry operations are the leading human-caused source of methane pollution in the country, and second worldwide. He then quipped, “maybe they do understand that and are trying to do the same thing they did to the coal industry.”
Wheeler continued to greenwash the benefits of natural gas and bragged that CO2 emissions fell by 2.7 percent in 2017, attributing this to the current administration. There are some plausible reasons for the reductions – perhaps because some coal power plants have been slowly coming offline, and maybe because of voluntary methane reduction programs. But this trend likely won’t stay on a downward spiral. For one, there is a substantial gas-fired power plant building boom sweeping the nation, with nearly 400 new gas plants coming online from 2018 to 2022.
There is no way that we can expect to keep seeing reductions in greenhouse gasses with a massive buildout of this scale. Moreover, the buildout is not to meet the country’s electricity needs, but rather to boost the energy sector’s corporate profits by creating new infrastructure to absorb the overabundance of low-priced natural gas.
New Gas-Fired Power Plants Emphasized
Throughout the conference natural gas-fired power plants were touted as “low cost, clean, reliable.” But natural gas is anything but clean. While gas-fired plants release fewer air pollutants than coal- or oil-fired plants, they still discharge sulfur dioxide (SO2), are major emitters of nitrogen oxide (NOx), contribute to ground-level ozone and smog, and threaten the environment and human health. Natural gas-fired power plants can also release radon, a naturally occurring radioactive material that is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States, after smoking.
In the session titled Gas Powered Cogeneration: A Green Machine, an industry consultant assured the audience that in Pennsylvania the permitting process is very simple and friendly, and the state government will even help you to obtain certain permits. That could explain the nearly 50 new gas plants horrifyingly slated for the state in spite of news that the world has about 12 years to make a major shift away from technologies that produce major carbon emissions.
Fracking Infrastructure Projects Planned Near Vulnerable Communities and Will Compound Regional Pollution
Polluting facilities like power plants have long been disproportionately located near disadvantaged communities, including lower-income areas and communities of color. Earlier this year Food & Water Watch did a study on this gas-plant boom in Pennsylvania, and found that the existing 88 power plants fueled by oil, natural gas and coal exhibited this pattern of disparate and unfair location in disadvantaged communities. The addition of 48 new gas plants (constructed or proposed since 2011) reinforced this long-standing environmental injustice by siting polluting power plants in more marginalized communities, including rural areas.
And of course, the conference wouldn’t have been complete without an emphasis on the petrochemical buildout in Appalachia — petrochemical plants process gas byproducts like ethane for the production of materials such as plastics.
In short, there is a massive buildout and expansion of new and existing plastics and petrochemical infrastructure in Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, including an in-progress ethane cracker plant (a type of petrochemical plant) in western Pennsylvania, a proposed cracker in Belmont County, Ohio, and the Appalachian Storage Hub, which would include a large underground storage facility and a web of interconnected pipeline infrastructure to connect to regional petrochemical plants and plastics factories in the Tri-State area.
Unfortunately, petrochemical plants, like crackers, are highly polluting, and the development of new facilities will compound the existing pollution problems, releasing volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and other toxins.
Frackers Need Infrastructure Expansion and Exports to Sop Up Surplus Gas and Keep Drilling
As Dennis Yablonsky (former Secretary, Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development and Retired Chief Executive Officer of the Allegheny Conference) touted, there is “still more gas that we can use,” and emphasized that exports still play an important role.
This is because surging fracked gas production has collapsed natural gas prices, spawning a crisis in the fracking industry. The Marcellus and Utica shale basins have become a major source of shale gas, producing so much gas that it pushed real, inflation-adjusted natural gas prices to their lowest levels in decades. From 2008 to 2017, the real wholesale price for natural gas fell by 60 percent as total gas production rose.
Now, fracking can only continue its breakneck pace if the overabundance of low-priced gas can become profitable through new buyers (power plants or petrochemical facilities), new markets (exports) or new products (plastics) to drive up gas demand. The fracking industry needs new demand sources to sop up excess gas so they can keep drilling. Like Steven Woodward of Antero Resources said, what the region needs to focus on more than pipelines is “developing a new regional market.”
Fracking Protests Are Working
The brightest takeaway from the conference is that fracking activists have been successful and the industry has taken notice. During the first full day, protesters convened around the convention center voicing their opposition – which I noticed made many of the attendees uncomfortable. And on stage, a Dominion Energy representative complained that five years ago, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) had a well-defined timeline and process for infrastructure projects like pipelines. But they noted that the opposition has changed that, describing environmentalists as a small but vocal group that is interjecting themselves in the participation process and slowing things down.
In other words, our organizing efforts are working. We must continue to build our movement’s scope and power, continue fighting infrastructure that locks us into decades of climate chaos, and rapidly and justly shift to 100% renewable energy by 2035 to prevent the worst effects of a warming planet.