Gov. Shapiro’s deal with fracking company splits environmentalists – Pennsylvania Capital-Star
By Audrey Carleton for Capital & Main
Environmentalists are split over a new deal struck by Pennsylvania’s governor with a natural gas producer: while some have applauded the effort to move forward amid a legislative deadlock on climate action, those on the front lines fear the agreement amounts to little more than PR, offering a model for the industry to regulate itself.
On Nov. 2, Gov. Josh Shapiro and CNX Resources Corporation President and CEO Nicholas J. DeIuliis – a past vocal opponent of regulations on the energy industry, climate science and “the left,” broadly — signed an agreement in which the fracking company “[expressed] its intention” to adhere to a handful of health and safety reforms Shapiro once recommended as Attorney General.
The company volunteered to extend no-drill safety zones between new wells and homes from the legal minimum of 500 feet to 600 feet, and to 2,500 feet for schools and hospitals; to monitor and publish data on harmful pollutants near its facilities; to publicly disclose the names of chemicals it uses for drilling, “subject to trade secret claims by chemical manufacturers”; and to work with the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to collect air quality data on two of its sites — all nonbinding steps as the statement is written.
Buried in this announcement was news that the DEP would begin the process of promulgating new regulations around methane, drilling waste, chemical disclosures of fracking fluids and corrosion of gathering lines that transport natural gas.
The partnership, which Shapiro’s office said in a press release added to “an already robust regulatory framework,” comes three-and-a-half years after Shapiro, as state attorney general, published a grand jury report that found the DEP had failed to protect Pennsylvanians from the health and safety risks of fracking. That report came with eight recommended reforms. CNX’s agreement adopts several of them, but fails to mention an enforcement mechanism.
“This is a voluntary agreement,” Shapiro said in a press conference on November 2. Even so, he said, it’s one he’s taking as a sign of progress as the state Legislature stalls on climate action.
“We’ve shown that energy production and environmental protection — they can coexist here in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” Shapiro continued. “You can be profit-minded and you can meet your obligations to your shareholders and employees and also protect public health and public safety. CNX is proof of that.”
And, while CNX’s agreement is voluntary, the regulations he directed the DEP to promulgate would not be, once they go into effect in some 18-24 months, a DEP spokesperson told Capital & Main.
From the campaign trail, Shapiro has walked a tightrope on energy issues — and in office, has been criticized by some for both inaction on climate change and playing too far into the hands of industry.
With this deal, the Shapiro administration is leaning on a strategy of consensus-building — one that some grassroots environmentalists swiftly rejected.
“Governor Shapiro’s toothless monitoring scheme is outrageous and embarrassing,” Food and Water Watch Pennsylvania State Director Megan McDonough wrote in a statement on the day of the announcement. “Instead of taking real actions to rein in corporate polluters, he is striking bogus partnerships to give frackers a public relations victory.”
In a statement issued the following week, the Environmental Health Project (EHP), a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit public health organization, argued the agreement “does not promise much more than what is already legally required of [CNX] in Pennsylvania.” The additional 100 feet for most health and safety setbacks to which CNX has agreed is well below the 2,500 feet widely recommended, and offering DEP access to just two of its sites could skew data the agency collects, the EHP claims. Disclosures of fracking chemicals can still be withheld by trade secret loopholes, as is current law.
“This is not CNX’s hero origin story,” the Center for Coalfield Justice, a grassroots environmental group serving heavily fracked southwestern Pennsylvania, said in a statement.”
CNX, the Center points out, is currently betting on becoming a key blue hydrogen developer in Appalachia as a partner and natural gas provider for the Appalachian Regional Clean Hydrogen (ARCH2) hydrogen hub, one of two in Pennsylvania recently awarded highly sought-after federal funding. The company was also involved in a Shapiro administration working group on a hotly debated cap-and-trade program — the group drew a mixed reception from environmentalists after its membership was kept out of public view.
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The company has also amassed more than one thousand environmental violations since it began operating. In 2019, for instance, the casing of a well near the Beaver Run reservoir, east of Pittsburgh, ruptured, stoking concern about the safety of a drinking water source for 130,000 people. This October, regulators found that CNX had made unauthorized water withdrawals to support shale gas development for 17 days.
CEO Nick DeIuliis, signatory on Thursday’s agreement, has taken to his personal blog to disparage anti-fossil fuel activism and a long-awaited set of three studies recently published by the Pennsylvania Department of Health and the University of Pittsburgh, which tied exposure to fracking to risk of developing asthma and lymphoma. DeIuliis called the studies, and the media storm in their wake, “disgusting and baseless.” “This type of research,” DeIuliis wrote on Oct. 3, “has been co-opted to fulfill predetermined views of the natural gas industry by those opposed to it.”
A month later, DeIuliis signed an agreement to fulfill health and safety recommendations built on studies like those. Is Thursday’s agreement a sign he’s changed his tune — or a sign that the agreement amounts to little more than lip service?
Manuel Bonder, press secretary for Shapiro, acknowledged these concerns, but reiterated the importance of consensus-building in a state in which fossil fuel production is deeply entrenched and action from the Legislature has thus far been minimal.
Capital & Main reached out to CNX but the company declined to offer comment.
Shapiro’s announcement also included notice that the executive branch would “take immediate action” to initiate rulemakings on a handful of environmental protections, including three from the 2020 grand jury report, one on the transport of fracking waste, one on gathering lines for transporting natural gas, and one on the disclosure of fracking chemicals. In 2012, the Pennsylvania Legislature passed an omnibus bill that exempted natural gas drillers from disclosing the ingredients they use for drilling should they deem them a “trade secret.” Shapiro’s grand jury report recommended doing away with this — presumably a regulation on the matter would, too.
Some environmental groups — PennEnvironment, Conservation Voters of Pennsylvania and Pennsylvania Environmental Council among them — applauded the forthcoming regulations. “We are pleased with Governor Shapiro’s efforts to take steps within his existing authority to address some of the problems highlighted in the [2020 grand jury report] through new safeguards,” said Tom Schuster, director of the Sierra Club Pennsylvania Chapter, in a statement.
“Voluntary corporate commitments are fine, but we need industry wide accountability,” he said. “The General Assembly needs to stop turning its back on frontline communities and pass laws to fully rein in the industry and protect the public.” (Schuster told Inside Climate News, separately, that “CNX has a history of greenwashing its operations.”)
CNX’s voluntary agreement, and the announcement of forthcoming DEP rules, come as the General Assembly stalls on climate-related bills and debate heats up over a measure that would enact a 2,500-foot protective no-drill zone, otherwise known as a setback, between new fracking wells and buildings or water wells. An Oct. 30 hearing of the House Environmental Resources and Energy committee on the bill, HB 170, was met with fierce debate, and a previous attempt to move the policy through that committee was cut short by House leadership.
Calls for a setback measure have been fueled by the University of Pittsburgh-DOH studies, published in August. But each call for protections is met by a louder one from an industry group or fossil fuel-tied legislator (or CEO) denying their necessity. Leading fracking trade group the Marcellus Shale Coalition called the setbacks bill a “backdoor ban.” GOP and fossil fuel-tied Chair of the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee Eugene Yaw called it “stupid.” A stalemate in the split Legislature has ensued.
“Nothing has changed in the General Assembly. Heck, they haven’t even taken a vote,” Shapiro said during the press conference. “I’m tired of waiting.”
Voluntary agreements like this one are a stopgap, he said, expressing hope that other natural gas drillers will follow in CNX’s footsteps.
Gillian Graber, executive director of Protect Penn-Trafford, an environmental advocacy group based in southwestern Pennsylvania, and a mother of two, said she isn’t holding her breath.
“This agreement is only with one company,” she told Capital & Main by email.
“Rather than a whack-a-mole approach,” she said, “we hope Shapiro will direct DEP to require every driller, not just one, to disclose the chemicals used.”
Audrey Carleton is a reporter for Capital & Main, where this story first appeared.
Originally published at www.penncapital-star.com,by Special to the Capital-Star