Pittsburgh weighs in on fracking


Protestors marched outside the David Lawrence Convention Center where Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gave a speech on his energy policy at the Shale Insight Convention. Stephen Caruso | Senior Staff Photographer

On land lined deep with Marcellus shale and the ancient fossil fuels it blankets, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump preached energy investment at a shale and natural gas convention Thursday.

Outside the David Lawrence Convention Center Downtown, where he was speaking, angered citizens and anti-fracking groups demanded environmental consciousness.

The Republican presidential candidate presented his energy policy at the Shale Insight Conference, promising  “an American-first energy plan” which will “increase total economic activity $20 trillion in 40 years” as well as cut energy prices.

Natural gas has proven to be a major political touchstone in this presidential election. Both major party candidates for president — Trump and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton — support fracking to an extent.

Clinton sees a role for natural gas as an important piece “in the transition to a clean energy economy,” only if it is properly regulated, according to her campaign website. Trump, more focused on the economic possibilities of natural gas extraction, emphasized less regulation on Thursday.

But as Trump spoke, about 150 western Pennsylvania residents pressed back against Trump’s vision of “shale energy revolution.” Many of the protesters have a personal stake in the debate because of hydraulic fracturing — or fracking — occurring in their own backyards.

Fracking involves drilling a hole into sedimentary rock –– also known as shale –– and then shooting a high pressure stream of water and chemicals into the ground through the hole. This causes the shale to fracture and release natural gases, such as methane, which can be captured for energy use.

Though these gases release less air-polluting carbon dioxide than burning oil or coal, some environmentalists worry about other pollutants caused in production that could contaminate water, as well as the potential for creating tremors in the earth.

Conversely, Gov. Tom Wolf, along with politicians in surrounding states, want to harness the economic potential of one of Pennsylvania’s most valuable natural resources.

According to Reuters, 2,300 fracking wells operated in Pennsylvania in 2012, each earning roughly $122,000 a year, or $2,440,000 over a projected 20-year life span.

Speaking on a panel at Thursday’s conference, Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor, R-Ohio, spoke about the advantages of jobs in fracking in an increasingly intellectual-based workforce.

“We need to do a better job of marketing the opportunity that exists in this industry,” Taylor said. “We need to talk about the types of jobs that exist, the fact that they’re stable, they’re well paid.”

Dennis Davin, Pennsylvania’s secretary of the Department of Community and Economic Development, emphasized the benefits of a public-private partnership between the county’s government and Consol Energy.

The Pittsburgh International Airport signed a contract with CONSOL granting it a $50 million signing bonus and 18 percent royalties on any gas sold.

“Consol arguably saves [the airport],” Davin said.

Cutting the cost of energy with natural gas production would also cut the cost of living for consumers, according to the Energy Information Administration.

Economic benefits would also mostly bolster the rural, rather than urban, economy, which has been left out of the technology boom. Most of Pennsylvania’s wells are concentrated in Washington, Bradford, Susquehanna and Greene counties, far from the urban centers of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.

Meanwhile, a study from Dartmouth University showed that “over half of the fracking revenue stays within the regional economy” — within 100 miles of the well sites.

“It’s all upside for this country,” Trump said of his energy policy. “More jobs, more revenues, more wealth, higher wages and lower energy prices.”

While Trump — considered an industry friendly candidate — emphasized the economic benefit of natural gas, Jane Worthington spoke to a gaggle of protesters outside the conference. The Robinson Township resident doesn’t feel blessed to have over a dozen fracking rigs within a half mile of her children’s school.

Worthington said she thinks one of her daughters has been exposed to benzene, a chemical commonly included in the cocktail of high-pressured fluids used in fracking. In a March interview with the Post-Gazette, she said her daughter has developed asthma and experienced nosebleeds and headaches, among other health issues.

“She’s not old, she’s not decrepit and she didn’t ask for this,” Worthington said Thursday. “She is 12. She is 12 years old and she has benzene in her body.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, long-term benzene exposure can intrude on bone marrow’s production of red blood cells and lead to a weakened immune system, anemia and excessive bleeding.

Worthington said the blame for her daughter’s benzene exposure falls on the heads of regulatory organizations. While Worthington hoped for accountability, Trump’s speech mainly focused on his willingness to limit regulators’ power throughout his speech.

“This is nobody’s fault except the [Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection] and the [Environmental Protection Agency] and those politicians who are not regulating what is going on,” Worthington said.

According to current Pennsylvania state law, wells must be 500 feet away from any existing structure.

A study released in February 2016 by the National Institute of Environmental Health Services cast doubts on the safety of this distance, saying it could not “be considered sufficient in all cases to protect public health and safety.”

Organizers from NextGen Climate, an environmental activist group, wore vibrant orange t-shirts that read “climate is our candidate,” outside the Convention Center. But in reality, members including Aleigha Cavalier, 28, of Fox Chapel, have directed the majority of their efforts against Trump.

“There are, in the race for presidency, one of two people [who] are going to be president,” Cavalier said. “We’re hoping in ensuring that the one who has basically promised to do an endless amount of damage to our environment and economy doesn’t get elected.”

That candidate, to NextGen, is Trump.

Along with his reference to the EPA in his speech Thursday, Trump said he would back out of the Paris Agreement, a United Nations-brokered agreement the United States signed on Sept. 6 that limits greenhouse gas emissions.

“So we know that he’s just not really on our team when it comes to our addressing these issues in the future of our planet,” Cavalier said.

Clinton does support fracking as part of her plans if elected, but with qualifications.

“I don’t support [fracking] when any locality or any state is against it, number one. I don’t support it when the release of methane or contamination of water is present,” Clinton said during a March debate with Bernie Sanders, a former candidate for the Democratic nomination for president. “I don’t support it … unless we can require that anybody who fracks has to tell us exactly what chemicals they are using.”

Trump dubbed Clinton’s regulatory goals as unnecessarily costly and ineffective.  

“Overregulation is costing our economy $2 trillion a year,” Trump said. “I’m going to lift the restriction on American energy and allow this wealth to flow into our communities.”

The cost for Worthington, however, is measured by the health of her daughter.

“I can’t possibly represent my daughter in any way, shape or form if we’re going to support a candidate such as Trump who will not pay attention to our environment,” Worthington said.