A war of words between labor and environmentalists — with Democrats in the middle — roared back into the spotlight Tuesday when Gov. Tom Wolf waded in, saying that more petrochemical development was “exactly what we need” in western Pennsylvania to meet clean energy standards.
During a radio interview with Pittsburgh radio station KDKA-AM, Wolf said that he disagreed with city Mayor Bill Peduto’s opposition to any more petrochemical facilities near the city.
Referencing acid mine runoff in the Susquehanna River, near his York County home, Wolf also said all concerned wanted a healthy environment — they just disagreed on how to keep those rivers free of pollution.
“We all want clean air and clean water,” Wolf said. “The question is, what is the best way to get to that and I think what’s coming out of the cracker plant is part of that energy efficient future.”
The remarks once again brought into focus to the divide between the Pittsburgh’s region’s moderate and progressive Democrats on whether to embrace or scorn a natural gas-fueled energy boom, and the manufacturing potential of turning ethane to plastic.
The debate is over an under construction petrochemical plant from Shell in Monaca, Pa. — about 30 miles northwest of Pittsburgh in Beaver County.
The multi-billion dollar plant, currently under construction, will turn fracked ethane gas into plastic. Construction is employing thousands of workers, and, once completed in the early 2020’s, the plant will employ another 600 people in full-time jobs.
Shell received more than $1 billion in subsidies under Republican Gov. Tom Corbett to help seal the deal and come to western Pennsylvania. .
But on Oct. 30, Peduto, a Democrat, spoke out against expanding the industry beyond a single plant.
Speaking at a conference on climate change — a week after President Donald Trump traveled to Pittsburgh to celebrate natural gas — Peduto said that should be no new petrochemical facilities in western Pennsylvania after Shell finishes construction
The remarks came after the Pittsburgh Business Times reported that ExxonMobil was scouting locations for another petrochemical plant.
“I have every corporate leader in this town upset at me,” Peduto told the nonprofit digital news outlet PublicSource this week.
But it wasn’t just business executives who expressed anger. Labor leaders and other Democrats, such as Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, a longtime Peduto ally, split with the two term mayor.
Peduto was not the first to say “no more.” Allegheny County Councilwoman Anita Prizio and state Reps. Summer Lee and Sara Innamorato, all progressive Democrats, previously called for the same.
Lee took to Twitter and reiterated her disagreement with the industry Tuesday.
Climate denial isn't just a Republican, global warning-is-a-hoax thing. Believing we have time to correct course after we profit a little more is also climate denial. And it's bi-partisan.
— Summer Lee (@SummerForPA) November 12, 2019
She was joined by former Pittsburgh City Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak. A Democrat who left office in 2018, Rudiak tweeted before Wolf’s comments, but was critical of politicians and labor backing the Shell plant.
* Our water is undrinkable bc lines contain lead
* Child care is out of reach for most families
* Sewage in our rivers bc we need a $2B fix
^^ Fixing these problems could result in 1000s of permanent middle-class jobs
But $1.65B tax dollars to @Shell
— Natalia Rudiak (@nataliarudiak) November 12, 2019
In addition to raising climate concerns, building the processing plants elevated air pollution worries in a city that has among the worst air pollution in the country, according to the American Lung Association.
Rudiak and others have pointed to the massive petrochemical buildout in Louisiana by chemical companies has already led to cancer risks 50 times higher than the average in some locales due to poor air quality.
During the Tuesday radio interview, Wolf reiterated an argument he’s been using since at least June, saying that the cracker will produce plastic that can be turned into lightweight materials that can produce energy efficient vehicles.
In an email, Wolf’s spokesperson, J.J. Abbott, clarified that “the Governor was pointing to the fact that lightweight plastics have been helpful in improving fuel economy in vehicles and reducing the energy intensity of other products because they help reduce weight when replacing other heavier materials.”
“This reduction of weight helps improve gas mileage and can reduce the energy required for shipping,” he added.
Abbott cited the U.S Department of Energy, which states that a 10 percent reduction in vehicle weight can increase fuel economy by six to eight percent.
The department’s website adds that such materials as “high-strength steel, magnesium alloys, aluminum alloys, carbon fiber, and polymer composites” can all cut back on fuel use in light weight designs.
Ray Fisher, a spokesperson for the Beaver County project, said in an email that that plant will produce polymers such as polyethylene, “which can be used in everything from food packaging to wire insulation to paint buckets.”
For environmentalists, Peduto’s public statements have put the future into stark terms: Either embrace a new, green economy based on renewables, or once again put Pittsburgh’s economy at the mercy of a polluting industry that could have devastating global consequences.
In a statement Tuesday that named Wolf and pointed to his radio comments, Jacquelyn Bonomo, president of environmental group PennFuture, called out a “disturbing refusal among many elected officials and captains of industry to embrace the changes needed to address climate change and the sustainable industries, jobs, and profits that will grow out of it.”
The Clean Air Council, a Philadelphia-based environmental group, also pointed to goals Wolf had set himself to cut Pennsylvania emissions by 26 percent by 2025 and 80 percent by 2050 to question his commitment to both natural gas and climate.
Wolf also recently announced plans to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a state based cap-and-trade program to cut carbon in the electricity generation sector.
“Companies like Shell are moving into plastics simply in order to generate profits with natural gas prices staying relatively low,” Joe Minott, the Clean Air Council’s executive director, said in a statement. “This is not about a path to a sustainable energy future. It’s about finding new ways to profit from fossil fuels that are driving climate change.”
The Shell plant is permitted for 2.2 million U.S. tons of carbon dioxide or equivalent greenhouse gas emissions.
“We hear about the potential to produce lightweight plastics, but honestly what is the plan to account for that emissions increase?” Minott said.
Producing, transmitting, and distributing natural gas that’ll feed the Shell cracker creates another 11.8 million US tons of carbon or equivalent gasses.