Secretive State Climate Talks Stir Discontent With Pennsylvania Governor

Three weeks after he was elected governor of Pennsylvania last fall, Josh Shapiro held a press conference at the county courthouse in Montrose, Pa., to announce what he called a “historic” settlement with the oil and gas company Coterra Energy. Coterra would pay $16.29 million to build a public water line in Dimock, a small town where Coterra’s fracking operations were blamed for contaminating the water, and would plead no contest to a misdemeanor charge under the Clean Streams Law. 

“We are here today because fundamentally Pennsylvanians have a right to clean air and to pure water,” Shapiro, then the state’s attorney general, said in his introduction. “That right is enshrined in our state constitution.” He saluted the people of Dimock who had testified in his investigation of Coterra as “good friends.” “When big corporations are not held accountable,” he said. “then the people suffer.”

Standing at his side at the Susquehanna County courthouse was Victoria Switzer, a Dimock resident and longtime advocate for the community. Taking the microphone,  she was emphatic in her praise for him. “My deepest respect and gratitude goes to the attorney general-governor-elect, Josh Shapiro, for making this day happen,” she said. 

The next day, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, or DEP,  declared that it would lift a 12-year ban on drilling in Dimock, allowing Coterra to operate there once again. Ever since, people in Dimock and their allies have speculated that Shapiro must have known about DEP’s decision at the time of the press conference even though he was not yet governor; they see the settlement and the lifting of the ban as part of a larger deal with Coterra. 

“If he didn’t know about it, where’s the outrage?” asked Karen Feridun, a founder of the Better Path Coalition, a grassroots environmental collective in Pennsylvania. “Why didn’t they do something?”

For Switzer and others who have fought for years for access to clean local water, the news from DEP was a betrayal of everything Shapiro had promised them. “Had we known about that, do you think I ever would have stood there with him in a public forum in front of all these news reporters and said it was the ‘people’s lawyer’ that got this done?” Switzer said in an interview. “I am so mortified that I was paraded and made a puppet.”

 Six months later, it’s not just the homeowners of Dimock—still lacking safe running water—who feel the sting of those two days in November. For many environmentalists and climate campaigners in Pennsylvania, the reversal was both a turning point in their hopes for the Shapiro administration and an omen of a worrying new development: secretive state climate talks.

A “climate working group” appointed by the governor is now convening privately, its members unidentified and the minutes of its meetings unreleased. The group’s existence came to light because of reporting by the Associated Press, and there appears to be no mention of the group or its agenda on the governor’s website. All of this secrecy is fueling suspicion about other deal-making and skepticism about the administration’s dedication to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. 

The Better Path Coalition has pushed for more information about the climate group’s meetings and has called on Shapiro to reinstate the drilling ban in Dimock. It has not received a response. “He talks about how he’s there to listen and hear you, but he hasn’t heard anyone,” said Feridun. “That’s not the governor he said he was going to be.”

A Moderate in a Purple State

During his campaign for governor, Shapiro spoke of taking “real action” to address climate change and “ensuring” “reliable, affordable and clean power” for Pennsylvanians. “The governor, he said he was going to be one who took climate change seriously,” said Michael Badges-Canning, who was the Green Party candidate for lieutenant governor in 2022. “He talked about science; he talked about how important it was that we act on climate.” 

Now, the fear is that Shapiro’s term will be marked by middle-of-the-road climate and environmental policy rather than the drastic action on emissions, pollution and energy that activists believe is needed. Yet while environmentalists are worried about Shapiro’s record on these issues so far, few of them are genuinely surprised. 

His campaign did not emphasize his work investigating the oil and industry as attorney general, and he does not support a statewide ban on fracking. Like many moderate politicians before him in purple Pennsylvania, Shapiro is attempting to balance constituents’ concerns about pollution and climate change with anxieties about the economy, jobs and energy independence.

In statements to the AP, the Shapiro administration has said that the climate working group is made up of “environmental, labor and business leaders” who will  “work together to recommend solutions” for tackling climate change, to “create and protect energy jobs” and “protect consumers.” 

The AP’s reporting suggests that one of the group’s main topics of discussion will be the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, or RGGI, a market-based trading mechanism through which 12 states in the Mid-Atlantic and New England work to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. 

As a candidate, Shapiro criticized the climate change plan outlined by his predecessor, Gov. Tom Wolf, which focused on RGGI, as potentially damaging to Pennsylvania’s energy industry, hurtful to consumers’ wallets, and not aggressive enough when it comes to reducing emissions. (Because of lawsuits filed by gas and coal interests, the state’s involvement with RGGI is currently pending in the courts.

During the campaign, Shapiro was noncommittal about Pennsylvania’s joining. But his 2023 budget proposal assumes that the state will participate in the consortium. Environmentalists in Pennsylvania are divided on the value of joining RGGI, but even supporters see it as insufficient. “It’s not a climate plan,” said Feridun. “At best, even if you think it’s a great thing, it’s part of a budget plan.”

The Shapiro administration did not respond to requests from Inside Climate News for additional comment on the climate working group or on the reasoning behind lifting the drilling ban in Dimock.

Environmentalists are also worried that the energy solutions discussed by the climate committee could involve the creation of “clean hydrogen hubs” in eastern and western Pennsylvania that could involve laying miles of pipeline carrying carbon dioxide. As the federal Department of Energy considers applications to build six to 10 regional hubs nationwide, the governor has rallied behind the two proposed in Pennsylvania.

In a budget address in March, Shapiro said, “We stand on the precipice of a major opportunity for energy and tech jobs, and Pennsylvania must lead the way by securing at least one regional hydrogen hub.”

“Who Is He Listening To?’’

Steve Hvozdovich, the Pennsylvania campaigns director for the environmental group Clean Water Action, said he was encouraged that Shapiro was “trying to bring in various stakeholders” for the climate working group who could “develop a strong and cohesive policy” on climate change for the state. 

He also expressed support for other environmental priorities identified by the governor, like aiding Pennsylvanians affected by the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio and a project to plug abandoned leaking wells across the state. The governor “has done a fairly good job up to this point in time, especially considering that he’s had to deal with a state House that’s been in flux,” he said, referring to the turmoil of special elections, party infighting and deadlock in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives this session.

Hvozdovich said that the governor’s decision to obscure the details of the climate working group’s goals has had the unintended effect of calling attention to what it could be hiding rather than on what it could accomplish. 

“We would like to see a little bit more transparency there,” he said. “I understand, in some ways, not wanting to have the process influenced. But it’s tough to know how encouraging the fruits of that committee’s labor is when you don’t know who makes up the committee, let alone what they’re actually discussing beyond the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.” 

 “Who is he listening to? That’s the question,” Badges-Canning said of Shapiro. “If these are reliable folks, why isn’t he telling us who they are?” 

One clue to the identities of the members of the group—and a possible explanation for the administration’s reluctance to share their names, aside from a desire to protect them from outside lobbying—may lie in the published list of members of the Shapiro transition team’s 35-member Environment and Energy Advisory Committee

Among them were several members of environmental groups, including Jennifer Quinn, legislative and political director for the Sierra Club’s Pennsylvania chapter; Katie Blume, political and legislative director for the Conservation Voters of Pennsylvania; and representatives of Earthworks and PennFuture. 

The advisory committee also included a number of people with ties to the oil and gas industry, including Dan Lapato, a managing director at the American Gas Association, an industry trade group, and John Hines, corporate relations manager for Shell Oil. Hines’ former career at the Pennsylvania DEP, where he worked for “close to two decades,” most recently as the executive deputy secretary for programs, is emblematic of longstanding criticism that the agency’s staff has a “corporate revolving door” problem.

Another transition committee appointee, Stephanie Catarino Wissman, works for the American Petroleum Institute, the largest oil and gas trade organization in the United States, which includes Coterra Energy as a member

The climate group has been attacked from the right as well as the left. Last month, David Galluch, a recent Republican candidate for Congress in Pennsylvania, wrote an op-ed for The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in which he referred to Shapiro’s use of “secretive closed-door meetings” and questioned the governor’s commitment to the natural gas industry. 

“Pennsylvanians do not even know how large the group is, let alone who its members are, what its guidelines are, and what its charge is,” Galluch wrote. “Mr. Shapiro is allowing the group to meet in total privacy, without recording or releasing minutes to the public, and has refused to detail the timeline the group is working on.” 

The only names that have been released to the public are those of the two co-chairs: Mike Dunleavy, a retired business manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local Union No. 5 in Pittsburgh, and Jackson Morris, who oversees  energy issues in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states for the Natural Resources Defense Council. In his work for the NRDC, Morris has been a consistent advocate of RGGI, writing about the benefits of its cap-and-trade framework since at least 2014. He has published five blog posts on NRDC’s website over the last three years about Pennsylvania’s potential participation in the initiative, heralding it as “Pennsylvania’s path forward on climate in 2023.” 

Wariness About Hydrogen Hubs 

The governor’s support for hydrogen hubs, meanwhile, has alarmed environmental activists, who view the proposals in Pennsylvania as a cover for the oil and gas industry to continue business as usual under the guise of producing “clean” energy. Advocates for hydrogen as a fuel believe it could help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and that it could someday be used to power transportation and heating. 

Because most forms of hydrogen production rely on fossil fuels, with blue hydrogen making use of carbon capture to reduce emissions, detractors are apprehensive about its effects on the atmosphere and the environment. Hydrogen itself has been shown to have a “warming power” that is “much greater than previously recognized,” according to the Environmental Defense Fund.

The western Pennsylvania proposal, called DNA H2Hub, would produce blue hydrogen from natural gas and is backed by Shell Oil and the public-private partnership Team Pennsylvania, a group co-chaired by the governor. Promoters describe the proposal as a “collective vision for emissions reduction and economic revitalization.” Mock-ups on the project’s website depict the new Shell petrochemical plant in Monaca as a potential recipient of “feedstock and fuel” from the hub. Two environmental groups recently sued Shell over emissions and flaring at the Monaca plant.

“Blue hydrogen has a large greenhouse gas footprint,” said Ginny Marcille-Kerslake, the eastern Pennsylvania organizer for the environmental group Food & Water Watch. Between the pipelines needed to carry natural gas, hydrogen and carbon dioxide; methane emissions from fracking; and the environmental problems associated with fracking, like the water contamination in Dimock, she said, blue hydrogen is “a false solution.”

Even green hydrogen, which harnesses renewable energy, is inefficient and has only limited necessary uses in industry, Marcille-Kerslake said. The eastern proposal, called MACH2, says that it will produce green hydrogen and pink hydrogen, which is made using nuclear energy.

Marcille-Kerslake is particularly concerned about the risks posed by the miles of pipeline that would be constructed to carry carbon dioxide for these hubs. Three years ago, she noted, a 2020 explosion of a carbon dioxide pipeline in Mississippi sent 46 people to the hospital and led to the evacuation of 300. “Fortunately, nobody died,” she said. “But it’s a wake-up call to what we would be facing.” 

“It’s very clear it is the fossil fuel industry and associated special interests that are the ones pushing for these hydrogen hubs,” Marcille-Kerslake said. “They are very excited about the opportunities that blue hydrogen presents to the industry.” 

Feridun agreed. “If you look at the people who are involved in the hydrogen hubs, they all come out of the fracking world, more or less,” she said. “You can see that it’s really just the next generation of what we’ve already been through.”

It is not yet clear where Morris of the NRDC, co-chair of the climate working group,  stands on Pennsylvania’s pending hydrogen hub applications. The NRDC has advocated the use of green hydrogen over other forms, calling blue hydrogen “a riskier investment.” 

A representative of the I.B.E.W, the labor organization for which Dunleavy, the climate working group’s other chair, long worked, sits on the board of directors for Team Pennsylvania, the partnership that submitted the DNA H2Hub proposal. Recently, that representative, Edwin Hill, Jr., posted on LinkedIn, “We are super excited to be a part of this generational opportunity.” 

Marcille-Kerslake said in a statement that Shapiro “needs to start living up to his promises to protect Pennsylvanians instead of propping up” the “destructive and dying” fossil fuel industry. “Five months in, we have seen no action from Governor Shapiro,” she wrote, pointing to the Shell plant’s violations and the hydrogen hub applications.

Badges-Canning attributes the governor’s record on the environment and climate to the realities of politics and his need for ongoing support. “What I’ve learned is that it’s not necessarily what’s right,” he said. “It’s who’s got the most money and who’s got the most political clout.” 

Badges-Canning is among those urging Pennsylvanians to keep up the pressure on the governor. “I don’t hold out any hope unless we get organized,” he said.

“Who Do You Turn To For Justice?”

Back in Dimock, Switzer has developed an erratic heartbeat that she attributes to her shock and anger over the lifting of the drilling ban. “I was furious,” she said. “That’s when I went in for my check-up, and I ended up wearing a heart monitor.” 

“Living in the shale fields is very stressful,” she said.

Keep Environmental Journalism Alive

ICN provides award-winning climate coverage free of charge and advertising. We rely on donations from readers like you to keep going.

Donate Now

Switzer grew up by a Pennsylvania creek, once taught state history and enjoys landscape painting, an outlet that she feels has helped keep her going through Dimock’s long water fight. Since the drilling ban was lifted, one of her nearby painting spots—a place where she used to watch meteorite showers—has been turned into a gas pad. 

She and her husband are now contemplating moving to New England or Colorado. “I like the idea of not seeing another fracking truck. I like the idea of not hearing the roar at night. I like the idea of my owls not having to compete with the drilling up on the hill,” she said. 

She has mixed feelings about the new water line that Shapiro announced last November. “I’m not ungrateful, don’t get me wrong,” she said. “But the water line doesn’t stop the pollution.” With Shapiro’s investigation into Coterra as attorney general, Switzer had felt glimmers of hope. “But now, what’s happened? Who do you turn to for justice? Now I don’t believe there’s anyone to turn to in Pennsylvania,” she said. 

At the end of the press conference last fall, Shapiro stood at the lectern again. “I feel grateful to the good people of Dimock for trusting us to help us get to this point where we could have resolution,” he said. 

Shapiro acknowledged that the water line still needed to be built. “I know that there’s still some work to do until they can put the glass under the tap and drink without worry, and that’ll be the day where I think I’ll feel totally satisfied,” he said, turning toward Switzer with a smile. “Maybe on that day I can come up and we can all have a drink together.” 

There was a pause, and then Switzer replied: “You first.”

    <div class="post-author-bio">

            <div class="image-holder">

                <img width="300" height="300" src="https://insideclimatenews.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/01/kiley_bense__013_WEB-300x300.jpg" class="attachment-thumbnail-medium-square size-thumbnail-medium-square" alt="Kiley Bense" decoding="async" srcset="https://insideclimatenews.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/01/kiley_bense__013_WEB-300x300.jpg 300w, https://insideclimatenews.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/01/kiley_bense__013_WEB-1024x1024.jpg 1024w, https://insideclimatenews.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/01/kiley_bense__013_WEB-150x150.jpg 150w, https://insideclimatenews.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/01/kiley_bense__013_WEB-768x768.jpg 768w, https://insideclimatenews.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/01/kiley_bense__013_WEB-64x64.jpg 64w, https://insideclimatenews.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/01/kiley_bense__013_WEB-600x600.jpg 600w, https://insideclimatenews.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/01/kiley_bense__013_WEB.jpg 1200w" sizes="(max-width: 300px) 100vw, 300px">
            </div> <!-- /.image-holder -->

        <div class="content">

            <h3 class="author-name">

                <a href="https://insideclimatenews.org/profile/kiley-bense/">
                    Kiley Bense                 </a>


                <a href="https://kileybense.com/">Kiley Bense</a> is a writer and journalist whose work has previously been published in the New York Times, the Atlantic, the Believer, and elsewhere.

        </div> <!-- /.bio -->

    </div> <!-- /.post-author-bio -->
Please follow and like us:
%d bloggers like this:
Verified by MonsterInsights