Gov. Tom Wolf has a choice to make about oil and gas in Pennsylvania: either lead on climate or pursue political expediency at the cost of his climate legacy and the health of Pennsylvanians he’s sworn to protect.
Gov. Wolf has made environmental and public health strides, including committing Pennsylvania to the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), adopting some air pollution standards for new oil and gas operations, and proposing similar controls for existing ones.
But the governor can’t seem to grasp that climate catastrophe will not be averted by half-measures. Climate policy is like COVID policy: It only works if you’re proactive, focused, consistent, and comprehensive.
Lately, the governor has failed in this regard. Last month, Attorney General Josh Shapiro released a scathing report on the criminal harms caused by the oil and gas industry, and the systemic failure of state agencies to prevent them. Yet, instead of supporting a report from a high-ranking state official charged with law enforcement, Wolf administration officials attacked the report, insisting that oil and gas industry oversight has improved and harms are now being avoided.
Then last week, the governor expressed support for a bill that would give away millions of taxpayer dollars for the reckless expansion of polluting plastic plants and other oil and gas projects — and sent his executive director of the Office of Energy, Denise Brinley, to a virtual industry event. One plastics plant, the Beaver County Shell facility, is already permitted to pollute the equivalent of adding 400,000 cars to state roadways.
When it comes to climate and the gas industry, the governor is fond of saying he’s not an ”either-or” guy. He thinks we can allow this industry to continue expanding without honestly reckoning with its environmental impacts. That makes him remarkably similar to other governors in relation to climate, and some even on COVID: publicly declaring their desire to limit spread while not taking meaningful steps to actually do so.
Gov. Wolf’s approach to the climate and health emergencies created by the oil and gas industry is especially surprising compared with his handling of the COVID pandemic. He has rightfully deferred to public health professionals and experts, balancing economic concerns, but prioritizing public health and safety.
“When it comes to climate and the gas industry, the governor is fond of saying he’s not an ‘either-or’ guy.”
He should take a similar approach to the climate crisis.
The science is clear. Pennsylvania and the rest of the world have until 2030 to cut climate pollution in half to avoid climate catastrophe, and the fossil fuel industry is primarily responsible for growing greenhouse gas levels in the United States. Since Pennsylvania is the second-largest producer of natural gas in the country, decisions made here play an outsized role. Gov. Wolf seemed to recognize this when he made climate commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions in the commonwealth by a quarter by 2025.
But we can’t get there by equivocating on methane pollution and the oil and gas expansion that is the leading cause of it. Methane is a greenhouse gas 86 times worse for climate than carbon dioxide. Every step of the oil and gas supply chain emits it. Every year, Pennsylvania’s 1.1 million tons of methane emitted from gas operations carry the climate impact of more than 5.4 million cars, using the most conservative estimates.
While the most disastrous consequences of the climate crisis are yet to come, oil and gas pollution is hurting Pennsylvanians right this minute. One in seven state residents live within a half-mile of oil and gas operations, which many studies show elevates threats to their health, including risk of fetal defects, respiratory issues, headaches, nose bleeds, and dizziness.
My organization, Earthworks, documents visual proof of this pollution at oil and gas sites across the state, using the same technology and training as the industry and Department of Environmental Protection inspectors. We have released reports showing that the current system of regulations and enforcement are simply unable to safeguard health and the environment.
If Gov. Wolf cares about his climate legacy, he’s not showing it. But it’s not too late for him to reverse course.
The administration still has time to strengthen oil and gas pollution control rules by removing loopholes for tens of thousands of “low-producing” wells so they cover all polluters and maintain standards over time. There’s still an opportunity to publicly accept the attorney general’s findings and veto the petrochemical tax credits bill. And now is the perfect time to halt the issuance of oil and gas permits until new policies are adopted to reduce harm, and state agencies have the resources and commitment necessary to protect Pennsylvanians.
There certainly isn’t time for more half-measures and contradictions from Gov. Wolf. We need real action on climate and health.
Nadia Steinzor is Earthworks’s community empowerment project manager and the author of multiple studies of the state’s regulatory failure to protect Pennsylvanians from oil and gas pollution.