When he took the job, Energy Secretary Rick Perry didn’t seem to know what the Department of Energy actually did. But since then, he has committed himself to one mission: promoting fossil fuels and petrochemicals.
Specifically, Perry is pushing a massive petrochemical buildout in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, which would turn the Tri-State area into a new epicenter of highly polluting petrochemical manufacturing to rival the Gulf Coast. Last week, the Energy Department released a Report to Congress boasting the erroneous benefits of a key piece of infrastructure called the Appalachian Storage Hub. Secretary Perry also gushed about the storage hub on the op-ed page of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
The Trump administration’s push for petrochemicals is perfectly in sync with what major corporate powers are proposing. Right now, investors are pouring billions of dollars into Appalachia to create a cluster of gas infrastructure and plastics and petrochemical factories. An alliance of industry players, government officials and regional universities have also been promoting this substantial investment.
Two of the facilities are petrochemical crackers that turn the natural gas liquid ethane into a chemical used to make plastic (one in Pennsylvania is under construction, while the other is proposed in Ohio). The third piece is the Appalachian Storage Hub in Ohio, which received partial approval early this year for a $1.9 billion Department of Energy loan. The Storage Hub would hold natural gas liquids like ethane underground and connect with a web of pipeline infrastructure to supply regional petrochemical and plastics facilities.
The whole reason the industry and its lackeys are pushing this petrochemical proliferation is to ride to the rescue of the struggling fracking industry. Surging fracked gas production has collapsed natural gas prices, spawning a crisis for the frackers. From 2008 to 2017, the real wholesale price for natural gas fell by 60 percent as total gas production rose. The Energy Department report even admits that the fracking boom in the Tri-State area is producing way more natural gas (and ethane) than can be used, outpacing the growth in associated infrastructure.
In his recent op-ed, Secretary Perry boasted, “My home state of Texas has the premier NGLs [natural gas liquids] hub in the Western Hemisphere… I’ve seen the tremendous opportunities it provides.” Petrochemical cheerleaders like Perry mean opportunities for the chemical, gas and plastics industries, because the people of the Gulf Coast are left to deal with some of the highest pollution levels and pollution-related illnesses and diseases due to refineries, petrochemical and plastics plants.
The Gulf’s petrochemical environmental injustice has tremendously disproportionate impacts on communities of color and lower-income neighborhoods. In Louisiana, the concentration of petrochemical plants between Baton Rouge and New Orleans has been called “cancer alley.” Similarly, the populations near petrochemical facilities in Houston live in high-cancer-risk areas. For example, there were 16 chemical plants within a three-mile radius of the Manchester-Harrisburg neighborhood, one of Houston’s lower-income communities of color. And children living within two miles of the Houston Ship Channel, where many plants are located, have a 56 percent greater chance of developing leukemia than children living 10 miles away.
Bringing Gulf Coast style petrochemical pollution to the Tri-State area is no economic boon, it’s an ecological nightmare. The buildout of the Storage Hub and associated facilities would likely harm the region’s socially and economically marginalized communities that lack the resources to fight back. Already, lower-income communities in Appalachia are more likely to have toxic neighbors and be disproportionately affected by pollution.
Secretary Perry claims that oil and gas production helps the economy “while protecting our environment.” The Pennsylvania communities that have been hard hit by fracking have had to endure polluted drinking water supplies, increased air pollution and truck traffic and a range of other negative health impacts.
Appalachia’s plentiful fossil fuel resources have not delivered widespread economic prosperity. The region endures higher rates of unemployment and poverty than the rest of the nation. A University of Pittsburgh Law Review article has also noted that natural resource development led to “a history of marginalization, extraction-related health issues, and a cycle of poverty.”
The Storage Hub just promises more fracking and more petrochemical pollution. Investing in more fracking infrastructure locks us into a fossil fueled future that threatens communities and the climate.