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Pennsylvania’s governor can’t have his cake and eat it too when it comes to climate

Ethan Buckner co-authored this blog.

On January 8, Governor Tom Wolf signed an executive order mandating new climate goals for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Wolf announced Pennsylvania’s new commitment to climate action at a press conference at the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh. But to the dismay of many who understand the climate impact of natural gas, Wolf also used his time at the podium to simultaneously declare his support for growing the state’s natural gas industry and welcoming the influx of petrochemical companies vying to turn that gas into plastics.

Somehow, the Governor seems to unconcerned with the contradiction between his stated view that, “climate change impacts in Pennsylvania are real and continue to put Pennsylvanians at risk” and encouraging the expansion of an industry that’s a significant climate change culprit.

His executive order calls for the commonwealth to reduce its greenhouse gasses (GhGs) 26% below 2005 levels by 2025, and ultimately cut greenhouse gasses 80% by 2050. It establishes a new Green Government Council (dubbed ‘GreenGov’) charged with implementing these reduction goals. The commitment is intended to align Pennsylvania with the Paris Climate Agreement, aimed at limiting climate disruption to 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius of additional warming, and puts Pennsylvania in league with 17 other US states that have adopted similar GhG reduction goals.

To meet these goals, Pennsylvania will have a steep hill to climb. As the nation’s second largest producer of natural gas, the state’s industry already emits an estimated 522,400 tons of methane pollution per year.  In addition, hundreds of thousands of wells “orphaned and abandoned” by oil and gas companies add to the Commonwealth’s methane problem.

Earthworks’ recent visit to the state’s “dry gas” region — so-called because the gas produced there is almost entirely methane — documented stark evidence of the industry’s methane problem. Methane is a wickedly powerful climate pollutant–it’s a GhG at least 86 times stronger than carbon dioxide over a two-decade period, and is responsible for a quarter of the human-caused global warming we’re experiencing today. And as climate scientists warn us: we have less than two decades to take dramatic action to stabilize the climate.

Governor Wolf’s executive order makes the stakes for GhG reductions plain and clear. It warns that runaway emissions, if “left unchecked, would create a high risk of irreversible, widespread, severe climate impacts in the Commonwealth and beyond.” Yet this stated urgency is meaningless without determined action, and severely undermined without slowing and ultimately eliminating Pennsylvania’s runaway fossil fuel development.

Relying on regulations

During the Q&A session of the press event, Michele Fetting of the Pittsburgh-based Breathe Project asked Governor Wolf if his climate plan would address emissions resulting from the massive new petrochemical processing facility–called an ethane cracker–being built by Shell in Beaver County, which would require the output of 1,000 fracking wells. Wolf responded that:

…we [have to] do this in an environmentally correct, the right way. We’ve got to figure it out, you know. If we want an either-or situation, I’m not your guy. I want to do both.”

Governor Wolf believes that regulations are the silver bullet that will allow gas companies to drain Pennsylvania’s shale reserves without making a mockery of his climate promises. While strong rules are crucial to protect health and climate from the hundreds of thousands of existing oil & gas sources already polluting the state, there is little reason to believe that rules or voluntary measures by the industry will, on their own, result in sufficient pollution reductions  within the twelve years the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change gives us to head off severe climate impacts.

A view from the ground

Earthworks documents the gas industry’s air pollution across Pennsylvania, from sources that are both subject to and exempt from regulations. By the PA Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) own admission, staff and money are in too short supply to reliably oversee industries and catch pollution early on. Moreover, in assessing its progress, the state and the DEP rely on industry self-reported emissions data that have been shown to downplay PA’s methane problem by a factor of five.

Climate change is already impacting Pennsylvanians in myriad ways. In just one disturbingly ironic example, barely weeks into its operation last September, Energy Transfer Partner’s (ETP) Revolution pipeline ruptured and exploded in Beaver County, destroying a home and nearly killing a young family. The disaster was caused by poor erosion controls that couldn’t withstand record flooding in the region — a tragic example of how the industry’s infrastructure is vulnerable to climate disasters that the industry itself is partly responsible for.

For Pennsylvania to truly and effectively “do its part to address climate change, the most critical environmental threat confronting the world,” as the executive order boldly states, the state needs to stop permitting new infrastructure that expands fossil fuel drilling and locks in demand for decades to come, and instead create a plan to transition toward clean, renewable energy. Anything less will undermine the state’s climate commitments, and further endanger the health and safety of Pennsylvanians.

Research out of the University of Leeds makes a strong case for immediately moving to phase out fossil fuels in order to increase our chances of maintaining a more livable climate. A recent report by Oil Change International reveals that new and existing drilling in the Marcellus and Utica basins in Pennsylvania could produce upwards of 18 Gigatons of carbon pollution between now and 2050, along with much more methane. As Oil Change concluded, “Given existing fossil fuel projects already push the world beyond safe climate limits, licensing their expansion is incompatible with climate leadership.”

Hopefully sometime soon, Governor Wolf will acknowledge that you can’t have your cake and eat it too–and instead put Pennsylvania on the path toward a more sustainable energy future, one that truly protects the health and safety of residents across the Commonwealth and beyond.

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