In June 2020, then Pennsylvania attorney general Josh Shapiro appeared at a press conference in Harrisburg to announce the findings of a two-year grand jury investigation into the state’s fracking industry. The 235-page report concluded that Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection and Department of Health had failed to protect residents from the worst effects of unconventional drilling.
Many of the details in the report were chilling; witnesses who lived near well pads described their pets dying, their livestock giving birth to “deformed” babies and their children suffering from rashes, stomach pains, lethargy and ulcers. One woman talked about her four-year-old’s chronic nosebleeds, which happened so frequently that her daughter’s princess bedspread was “ruined,” and she found herself trying to clean blood out of the carpet with hydrogen peroxide.
The report noted that there was a clear relationship between the appearance of these symptoms and the arrival of nearby fracking operations, and medical and environmental testing confirmed the presence of chemicals and contaminants from the industry in residents’ bodies and homes.
In his remarks, Shapiro emphasized the need for the government to hold powerful oil and gas companies to account. “We can’t rely on big corporations to police themselves,” he said. “After all, they report to their investors and their shareholders. That’s their job. It’s the government’s job to set and enforce the ground rules that protect the public interest. And through multiple administrations, they failed to do that.”
Three years later, and nearly a year into his first term as Pennsylvania’s Democratic governor, Shapiro announced a “first-of-its-kind collaboration on environmental monitoring and chemical disclosures” with CNX Resources, a natural gas company, that the administration said would “advance commonsense measures to defend public health and safety.” The deal is predicated on CNX’s willingness to be “radically transparent” with the public about its own operations.
For some activists in Pennsylvania, Shapiro’s embrace of CNX is indicative of the distance between the governor’s policies on climate and the environment in his first year in office and the priorities he pursued as attorney general. From a working group on the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, whose members and agenda were kept secret for months, to the governor’s unequivocal support for building hydrogen hubs, even if they use natural gas, environmentalists who were once optimistic about Shapiro’s election are disappointed.
‘Jekyll and Hyde’
The governor’s 2024 budget address, delivered on Tuesday in Harrisburg, did little to dispel their concerns. There were few mentions of climate change or the environment, and the administration’s new 10-year strategic economic development plan, called “Pennsylvania Gets It Done,” unveiled last week and highlighted in the speech, relies in part on leveraging Pennsylvania’s natural gas resources.
“It’s really like a Jekyll and Hyde thing since he was attorney general and governor,” said Shannon Smith, the executive director of FracTracker Alliance, a nonprofit based in Johnstown that uses data and mapping tools to analyze and track the impacts of exposure to oil and gas development. “If you compare the two, they’re not even the same person.”
At the time of the grand jury announcement, environmentalists voiced support for its report’s eight policy recommendations for the state government “to minimize the hazards arising from unconventional drilling.” According to the Center for Coalfield Justice, an environmental and public health nonprofit in Southwestern Pennsylvania, the investigation’s findings “validated” residents’ doubts about the claims made by fracking companies drilling near their homes and their skepticism about DEP’s willingness—and ability—to regulate the industry.
In November, some of those same advocates were dismayed when Shapiro announced the partnership with CNX Resources, a natural gas company that Shapiro had charged with violating the Air Pollution Control Act in 2021 when he was attorney general.
As part of the deal, CNX would “voluntarily expand its no-drill zones” in Pennsylvania from 500 to 600 feet and to 2,500 feet near vulnerable sites like schools and hospitals. It would also conduct “intensive” air and water quality monitoring, disclose chemicals used in drilling and fracking to the public and provide access to two future wells so that DEP could study air emissions at the sites and “make it possible for communities to understand the facts about natural gas development.”
“In place of endless speculation and dueling rhetoric, CNX seeks to change this paradigm by open-sourcing facts, science, and data to all stakeholders and creating mutual trust which can serve as the basis for cooperation and real environmental and economic progress in the Commonwealth,” said Nick Deiuliis, CNX’s CEO.
The Shapiro administration has not responded to requests for comment for this article.
To advocates who have studied and monitored the impacts of fracking on public health and the environment in Pennsylvania for the past two decades, the announcement felt like “a slap in the face to communities suffering from years of drilling,” as the Center for Coalfield Justice put it.
“We have enough research already,” Smith said, including a $3 million, three-year study conducted by the University of Pittsburgh and contracted by the Pennsylvania Department of Health that looked at the effects of fracking on asthma, birth outcomes and childhood cancer in Pennsylvania. “That was just such an insulting thing,” she said, “for him to put out that press release announcing this, as if we’re all going to applaud him.”
The Shapiro administration’s relationship with CNX Resources began with its transition team, when the governor chose CNX Vice President Brian Aiello as part of the subcommittee on energy and continued with the RGGI working group, which was convened to discuss whether Pennsylvania should join the multi-state cooperative that uses a cap and invest model to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power generation. Zach Smith, CNX’s director of government relations, was a member of the working group.
Another member of the RGGI group, David Masur, the executive director of PennEnvironment, said that he saw value in the governor’s bipartisan approach to the group, which included representatives from labor interests, fossil fuel companies like Shell and CNX and environmental groups.
“Just by bringing us all together, it did build some affinity,” Masur said. He said that participating in the group had introduced him to people he’d never met. Even if they didn’t agree, it was helpful to form relationships with political opponents—to see them as real, approachable people rather than caricatures. “I think we need more of that in politics,” he said.
Shapiro’s thinking in putting together the RGGI group was reflective of his governing philosophy as a whole, Masur said. “He’s willing to have the uncomfortable conversations. He wants to bring divergent constituencies together to hash it out versus keeping people in their silos.”
To Masur, Shapiro is doing the best he can under difficult political circumstances. “He needs partnership with the legislature, and they don’t seem like they’re wanting to come to the table on much of anything,” Masur said.
Ambitious climate goals
While Democrats gained control of the House for the first time in more than a decade in 2023, Republicans still control the Senate, limiting Shapiro’s ability to tackle the ambitious climate goals he set as a candidate for Pennsylvania reaching net-zero emissions by 2050 and generating 30 percent of the state’s energy from renewable sources by 2030.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, 3 percent of Pennsylvania’s electricity generation comes from renewable energy sources, putting the state at 45th in the country for that metric. A 2023 report from PennEnvironment ranked Pennsylvania as 50th for growth in renewable energy since 2013, lagging far behind states like Texas. Pennsylvania also ranked 50th for energy savings from efficiency improvements.
In his budget address, the governor said that his economic development plan’s focus on site redevelopment for businesses and start-ups would help with “combating climate change” by investing in clean energy. “I know there are bills to pass and work to do to combat climate change, but one of the most important things we can do right now is invest in our clean energy economy and the jobs it supports,” he said.
“He’s got his work cut out for him because, sadly, we are in a world now where there’s more political value in being obstructionist than there is in compromising and making incremental change for the greater good,” Masur said.
Like the CNX partnership, the RGGI group angered environmentalists, who saw the inclusion of stakeholders from the oil and gas industry as dangerous capitulation rather than pragmatic politicking. In a letter to Shapiro about the group, 15 environmental organizations in Pennsylvania said that the administration was “offering the corporations who would be regulated by RGGI an additional chance to kill the program.”
The Shapiro administration recently appealed two court decisions that had ruled against Pennsylvania’s participation in RGGI, but the governor declined to fully endorse the program.
Support for hydrogen pleases industry
Shapiro’s support for hydrogen hubs — which also dates back to his campaign — is another worry for environmentalists, who view the approved projects in Pennsylvania as a way for gas companies to keep drilling, fracking and building pipelines.
In October, the administration touted the two hydrogen projects coming to Pennsylvania as a “transformational federal investment” that would create thousands of jobs, “harness Pennsylvania’s position as an energy leader, and make the Commonwealth the center of a growing industry.”
Nicknamed ARCH2 and located in West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky, and western Pennsylvania, the Appalachian Hydrogen Hub will rely on natural gas to make hydrogen, and CNX Resources is one of its project development partners. In 2023, CNX spent $790,000 on lobbying efforts, according to Open Secrets, and one of the debates that they hoped to influence concerns rules that will determine what kind of hydrogen projects qualify for tax credits under the Inflation Reduction Act. The industry fears that proposed rules requiring that projects use renewable energy sources would “negatively impact” hydrogen hubs that use natural gas.
In a statement reviewing the governor’s first year in office, Dave Callahan, the president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, a trade group for the natural gas industry that counts CNX among its members, was largely complimentary. He highlighted reform for DEP’s permitting process and “opportunities to expand natural gas transportation and use, particularly in manufacturing and emerging hydrogen economies” as two “areas of focus” for Shapiro as he begins his second year.
“Natural gas is fundamental to Pennsylvania’s economy, and we appreciate the broad group of business, labor and bipartisan legislative leaders who continue to advocate for commonsense energy policies,” he said. “We remain committed to promoting a flexible regulatory environment that keeps Pennsylvania open for business.”
Stephanie Catarino Wissman, executive director of the American Petroleum Institute Pennsylvania, said Wednesday in a statement that Shapiro’s budget proposal and new economic development plan show that “Pennsylvania-produced natural gas is playing a pivotal role in helping to drive our economy and create good jobs – including attracting billions of dollars of investment in hydrogen technology to the region.
“More can be done to unlock Pennsylvania’s full potential and help ensure our energy future,” Wissman said. “That means advancing comprehensive permitting reform and putting smart policies in place that support Pennsylvania energy and build-out of critical infrastructure. We look forward to working with the Governor on solutions that prioritize our state’s energy economy and help ensure the Keystone State stays competitive.”
Energy is one of five priority sectors in the administration’s new economic development plan. The plan underscores Pennsylvania’s energy industry’s “competitive specializations” in natural gas and hydrogen as well as the state’s “wealth of natural resources” in oil and gas, petrochemical and coal manufacturing, and pipeline transportation.
The two hydrogen hubs, the plan says, are “poised to collectively receive $1.7 billion in federal infrastructure and workforce development investment and create over 40,000 family sustaining jobs.” The plan calls for combining the hydrogen hubs with Pennsylvania’s “vast natural gas reserves” and goals for renewable energy to “take an all-of-the-above approach to energy production.”
In January, PennFuture and Conservation Voters of Pennsylvania called the economic plan “a repackaging of the fossil fuel industry’s playbook in Pennsylvania” that relies on “dirty fossil fuels” and will lead to “an unstable boom-bust economy that harms our workers, our environment, and our quality of life.”
“We can do better,” the groups wrote. Conservation Voters of Pennsylvania endorsed Shapiro’s candidacy in April 2022.
No False Solutions PA, an alliance of environmentalists in Pennsylvania who aim to “educate and inform legislators and decision-makers about emerging technologies that claim to be solutions to the climate crisis,” is one of the groups concerned about the governor’s choice to champion hydrogen hubs.
“What we are seeing in Pennsylvania is a concerted effort from the oil and gas industry to maintain business as usual by coming up with new ways to continue to use fracked gas,” one of the authors of a new report from the group, Sandy Field, said in a press release in January. “The health and environment of Pennsylvanian communities have been sacrificed for energy production by the fossil fuel industry for 150 years. Pennsylvanians deserve a better future.”
‘A form of climate denial’
Activists on the front lines of fracking feel betrayed by the administration’s focus on building relationships with the industry while brushing off years of work that their organizations have done to understand the health and environmental effects of oil and gas development.
It isn’t possible for the governor to “make everyone happy” on issues like fracking and climate change, they say, because what fossil fuel companies want and what everyday Pennsylvanians need are diametrically opposed. You can’t reconcile the interests of “those who are killing our planet for profit, and those who do not want to live on a dying planet,” Smith said.
“This is the 20th anniversary of fracking in Pennsylvania. There’s mountains of evidence saying that it can’t be regulated, that it’s unsafe, that it has to stop. It’s unacceptable for the governor to try to make it look like somehow all of this could be done safely. It can’t be. That’s just a fact,” said Karen Feridun, a member of No False Solutions PA and founder of the Better Path Coalition, a grassroots coalition of several Pennsylvania environmental groups. “It’s a form of climate denial to pretend otherwise.” The Coalition recently published an open letter reviewing Shapiro’s first year as governor.
“It’s an ongoing health crisis that’s not being treated like a health crisis,” Smith said. “We’re here doing the job that regulators should be doing, which is providing data in a clear and accessible way. They should be thanking us for stepping in to fill in some of these information gaps, but instead, we’re just seemingly completely ignored.”
Critics of the CNX partnership have questioned how Shapiro could trust a company that has accumulated 400 violations from DEP since the grand jury report was released. In addition, the agreement’s voluntary requirements show that the company’s chemical disclosures would still be “subject to trade secret claims by chemical manufactures,” or what’s known as the Halliburton Loophole, and that air quality data the company promised to share with the public in real-time “may be delayed or suspended by CNX at its discretion.”
An announcement from the administration in January about a new requirement for unconventional drillers to publicly share the chemicals they use also has shortcomings, and it excludes conventional drillers. CNX’s chemical disclosures on its “Radical Transparency” monitoring website highlight one of these problems: the list contains more than two dozen instances of the codes for trade secrets or confidential proprietary information.
Though some environmental groups, like the Sierra Club and Clean Air Council, praised the CNX deal, their support was tempered by calls for “industry-wide accountability” that goes beyond voluntary disclosures. In a press release showcasing reactions to the news, the Shapiro administration removed one paragraph from Clean Air Council’s statement that encouraged DEP to act now on well setbacks with the evidence it already had about the dangers of fracking.
One recent source of evidence is a University of Pittsburgh and Department of Health study, published in 2023, that found that people with asthma living near producing wells were more likely to experience worsening symptoms, children living within one mile of a well were five to seven times more likely to develop lymphoma and babies born to women who lived near wells were 20 to 40 grams smaller than those with mothers who didn’t live near a fracking well. Shapiro has not spoken publicly about how or whether this government-funded study’s results might inform future policy around natural gas development.
In December, CNX published an article, written by Chief Risk Officer Hayley Scott, outlining the company’s own point of view on studies like the Department of Health’s. “This is the bottom line: no credible studies indicate natural gas is a threat to public health,” she wrote, noting that CNX had agreed to the partnership with DEP to “prove this is the case.” The Marcellus Shale Coalition said the study showed “very little correlation and no causation.” In January, CNX CEO Deiuliis wrote in another article that fracking is “crucial to our future health and environmental well-being.”
‘We’ve seen this before’
Back in 2020, at the press conference announcing the grand jury report, Attorney General Shapiro described the strategies employed by the industry to cast doubt on residents’ experiences of living near fracking.
“These oil and gas titans, and the regulators at DEP who have let them get away with whatever they want, they’re going to fight back. They’re going to say that this report is anecdotal, and there’s no proof any of this was really caused by fracking,” he said.
“They’ll roll out so-called experts that they’ve paid, and they’ll hold up all the donations that they’ve made in communities, and they’ll say where did this water really come from?” Shapiro paused to hold up a jar of brown, sloshing water.
“They’re going to ask you when the pictures were taken, and how do we know that the filter that was used in the drinking water well—how do we know that that’s real? How do we know that this is really a filter that filtered the water in these communities that these children were told to drink?” He picked up the filter, enclosed in a plastic bag, his voice rising. “Respectfully, it’s all bogus,” he said. “That’s all bogus, what they’re going to say. If we let them, they’d take a higher return on their investment before they’d keep a kid in Washington County safe and secure in their home. That’s what they would do.”
“That’s our history in Pennsylvania,” he said. “We’ve seen this before.”
Shapiro opened his budget address by quoting Pennsylvania’s founder, William Penn, whose words are painted on the ceiling of the Capitol Rotunda, where the governor delivered his speech. Penn’s vision of Pennsylvania was of “a place that would be an example to the nations—a place of tolerance, peace, and prosperity, where leaders would make wise and just decisions in service to all people,” Shapiro said.
At the end of his address, he returned to this idea. “Let’s take inspiration from this grand Rotunda,” he said, invoking “The Spirit of Vulcan,” one of the murals painted on the soaring ceiling, “which shows the Roman god of the forge working a blast furnace, in honor of our Commonwealth’s mastery of iron and steel.”
“The Spirit of Vulcan,” he said, “painted at the height of Pennsylvania’s industrial wealth and prominence, reminds us of that history. It reminds us of an era when our Commonwealth fueled the industrial revolution,” he said, describing the mural’s tribute to a time when Pennsylvania was home to the “most powerful manufacturing base in the world.”
“Our kids read about those things in our history books. They’re depicted on these murals. But I don’t want them to just be inspired by our past,” Shapiro said. “I want them to be hopeful for their future.”
In his speech, Shapiro didn’t mention two of the other murals on the ceiling above him, both of which celebrate Pennsylvania’s long history of fossil fuel extraction: “The Spirit of Light,” an ethereal image of an oil field, and “Science Revealing the Treasures of the Earth,” showing coal miners climbing into a mine while three figures hover overhead, each one personifying a different ideal: Fortune, Abundance and Science.