Shapiro's environmental agenda raises hopes - but also questions

By Audrey Carleton

Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro campaigned on an environmental platform propped up by green jobs, innovation on the road to decarbonization, promises to plug the state’s hundreds of thousands of abandoned oil and gas wells and a determination to hold polluters accountable for malfeasance.

Compared to his opponent, state Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Franklin. his environmental record was strong: As attorney general, Shapiro had been tough on oil and gas companies and on the regulators that permit them and taken a hard line on PFAS, or “forever chemicals.”

His commitment to building out the commonwealth’s renewables and electric vehicle infrastructure in service of a net-zero by 2050 emissions goal offered a new vision of what the state’s energy economy could look like.

But as Shapiro begins his term, after a year in which the state saw scorching heat waves and damage from flooding caused by Hurricane Ida, questions remain about how exactly his administration will carry out this agenda.

Just one week prior, on Jan. 10, he appointed the first Latino secretary in agency history to head up the Department of Environmental Protection: Rich Negrín comes to the position with more managerial experience than environmental work on his résumé, but Shapiro believes he will effectively manage the agency to “[carry] out a bold, comprehensive climate and energy plan.”

Within the first few weeks of his election victory, the former attorney general was hailed for bringing closure to a long-fought battle by residents of a fracking “ground zero” — but the victory for clean water advocates was undercut by an order that reopened the once-protected zone to lateral drilling.

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In a Nov. 16 press conference, the governor-elect remained vague about his stance on a years-pending carbon trading program, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative or RGGI. Shapiro has failed to take a hard line on fracking, and he’s expressed strong interest in building out a controversial hydrogen hub that some environmentalists fear will only extend the state’s reliance on natural gas.

Without providing specifics, Shapiro told reporters at the Nov. 16 press conference that he approaches his position with a “package of ideas” for addressing the climate crisis. In the days leading up to his inauguration on Jan. 17, environmentalists in the state remained mixed in their assessment of what to expect from his administration — and determined to push the governor-elect on their concerns.

On Jan. 10, the Better Path Coalition — a network of grassroots environmental groups throughout the state — sent Shapiro a letter laying out 32 demands for his incoming administration. Among them:

  • that the Dept. of Environmental Protection reinstate a full ban on fracking within the township of Dimock
  • that the executive branch halt the Dept. of Environmental Protection’s ability to issue oil and gas permits to operators with a history of violations
  • that the administration raise reclamation bond costs for abandoned oil and gas wells to the true cost of plugging
  • that the administration halt plans to permit projects involving fracked gas, like blue hydrogen (produced from natural gas), carbon capture and sequestration and direct air capture (technologies designed to lower emissions that have a poor track record of success).

“The unproven, often cost-prohibitive solutions are nothing more than attempts by the fossil fuel industry to continue doing business as usual behind a thin, greenwashed veil. Taken together, the solutions represent the next generation of fossil fuel development in Pennsylvania and guarantee continued drilling and fracking,” the coalition said in a statement.

“The letter [calls] on Shapiro to lead where his predecessors have failed,” the statement continues. “They hitched Pennsylvania’s wagon to two dying stars — plastics and fossil fuels.”

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The letter also includes a push for the governor to ban fracking outright, though the signatories acknowledge that this proposal is “often dismissed as impractical to impossible in Pennsylvania.”

“Degree of difficulty is not a relevant criticism,” the letter counters.

A hard line on fracking?

Others, too, hope to see Shapiro take a hard line on fracking — by starting with the eight recommendations the governor-elect laid out as AG in a 2020 grand jury report on the natural gas industry that included a call for 2,500-foot buffer zone between drill sites and homes and a recommendation to require natural gas companies to disclose all chemicals involved in the drilling process before they are used (under current law, operators don’t have to disclose them until after the fact.)

In an open letter to Shapiro on Jan. 4, Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) Pennsylvania urged the incoming administration to move swiftly to adopt these resolutions. “We look forward to significant progress in this early in 2023,” the letter reads. (The Better Path Coalition’s letter acknowledges these recommendations but notes that they are “wholly inadequate.”)

The exact goals of Shapiro’s 34-member energy and environment transition team — which includes staff from established green groups and renewable and fossil fuel energy companies — remain under wraps. (Capital & Main reached out to several members of the transition team, and none agreed to speak on the record prior to publication.

Shapiro’s entire transition team was asked to sign NDAs, Spotlight PA reports.) At least two members of the energy transition team, both representatives of companies within the green energy sector — energy efficiency auditing service provider Commonwealth Energy Group and industrial solar energy group Intersect Energy — personally donated more than $100,000 combined to Shapiro’s campaign in the months leading up to his election.

Industry has its say

The state’s GOP and fossil fuel industry are likely to continue pushing Shapiro to loosen regulations on the oil and gas sector — fossil fuel-tied state Sen. Eugene Yaw, R-Lycoming, issued a statement on Jan. 17, the day of the inauguration, outlining an aim to “find some common ground” with the new governor on the commonwealth’s “energy needs.”

The Marcellus Shale Coalition, a state natural gas industry trade group, expressed a similar desire in an interview with the Pittsburgh Business Times on Tuesday, which also pointed out Shapiro’s “all-of-the-above” energy policy.

Meanwhile, other environmental groups remain hopeful that they’ll see progress on hot-button environmental issues Shapiro is inheriting from the Wolf administration, like RGGI, an 11-state carbon trading program into which outgoing Gov. Tom Wolf entered the state with the aim of curbing emissions from fossil fuels and generating funds from auctions for green investments.

Shapiro has historically refused to take a side on RGGI amid ongoing legal attacks from GOP legislators and labor and fossil fuel groups, instead stressing his aim to build out the state’s renewable energy portfolio. In a November press conference, he committed to assembling a diverse team to assess the issue.

“I respect the fact that he’s trying to reset the conversation on RGGI,” said Robert Routh, public policy and regulatory attorney at the Clean Air Council, who added that he aims to ensure that the Shapiro administration “vigorously defend” the initiative. “It’ll be interesting to see how that takes shape.”

Routh also hopes that, with a Democratic majority slated for the House, a handful of bills that have been introduced to devote RGGI funds to renewable projects will finally gain traction after stalling in committee under GOP leadership.

He also stressed the importance of stronger action from the executive branch on abandoned oil and gas wells — action that’s been hampered by recent Republican legislation restricting the state’s ability to raise bonding amounts for well plugging and to compete for federal dollars offered to states that update their regulations on the issue via the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

“The administration has a historic opportunity in front of it to leverage significant federal investments,” Routh said. “I’d like to see the Shapiro administration aggressively pursue that federal funding.”

Tom Schuster, director of the Sierra Club Pennsylvania Chapter (another staffer of which sits on Shapiro’s transition team), has been part of an effort to raise the amounts of these bonds via a set of petitions filed with the state’s Environmental Quality Board (EQB).

The board, which is responsible for adopting DEP regulations, has accepted those petitions, but not yet formally put them to a vote — though Schuster hopes to see progress in this arena this term. (Schuster also hopes to see the governor implement RGGI; hold the fossil fuel sector to account; and take advantage of federal funding for weatherization, workforce redevelopment, and other programs available via the IIJA and the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act.)

“We’re at a critical juncture right now with the climate crisis,” Schuster said. “It’s going to take truly transformational policies over the next four years. We’re talking about a lot of equipment and infrastructure that needs to be built or replaced. And that takes many years to decades, so we really need to get those policies in place now.”

Among the signatories of the Sierra Club petitions was Protect Penn-Trafford, a grassroots nonprofit based in southwestern Pennsylvania that’s devoted to halting fossil fuel activity in the counties surrounding Pittsburgh.

The group’s executive director, Gillian Graber, said she hopes to see Shapiro hold to account the conventional industry — which is responsible for shallower, often older oil and gas wells, where the majority of well abandonment appears to occur. Part of this effort will involve overhauling the DEP.

Also a co-author of the Better Path Coalition’s letter, Graber is urging the governor to flip the current culture of the agency — one she characterizes as full of friendly negotiations with operators, faulty permit application review processes and a fear of holding industry to account — on its head.

“The culture of the DEP has to change,” Graber said, “to put their mission first, which is serving the people of Pennsylvania and not corporations.”

Audrey Carleton is a reporter for Capital & Main, where this story first appeared

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