Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto made headlines for becoming the first politician
in the state to publicly oppose any additional petrochemical plants in western
The backlash from industry was swift, and his announcement came as a surprise to many. That’s because it follows recent moves made by state lawmakers to attract a hub of new plastic-producing plants to the region. The Energy and Fertilizer Manufacturing Tax Credit (HB 1100), which passed the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in September, would slash taxes for manufacturers who use methane to make fertilizers or petrochemicals (the building blocks of plastics).
One reason for the backlash might have been its shock to oil and gas interests – especially those who have paid up significantly to lawmakers who support such incentives.
Global Witness discovered that representatives who voted for this bill on average received over six times more campaign funds from the oil and gas industry than those who opposed it, according to analysis based on voting information from LegiScan and 2018 campaign finance data compiled by the National Institute on Money in State Politics (NIMSP).
All together, those who voted “yea” received a combined total of $341,290 from oil and gas donors in 2018, though not every representative is recorded as receiving oil and gas contributions.
That translates to an average of $2,455 for each member who supported the bill, compared with an average of $370 for each member that voted against.
A windfall for oil and gas interests
The proposed tax credit, which passed the House with a wide margin of 139 to 46 and now sits in the state’s Senate Finance, is part of a larger pro-fracking package called “Energize PA” promoted by state business interests including the Marcellus Shale Coalition, Pennsylvania’s principal trade group representing the gas drilling industry.
The planned tax credit is likely to cost state taxpayers billions of dollars over the next 20 years. This is the extension of a $1.65 billion tax break given to Shell for a controversial ethane cracker plant currently being built in Beaver County. The bill would pave the way for a corridor of potential polluters along the Ohio River Valley—and that’s not hyperbole. Weeks after it was passed, news broke that ExxonMobil is reportedly scoping Beaver County for its own chemical plant.
This bill would be a massive fossil fuel handout, expanding environmental health hazards while profiting polluters rather than local communities.
Take the Shell plant: Global Witness previously found that each of the 600 permanent jobs the plant will create come at an expected cost of $2.75 million in state subsidies over the next 25 years. That means the jobs from this polluting plant come at a huge cost to taxpayers rather than the many more green jobs that could be created with the same investment.
More incentives for fracking at the expense of residents is a mistake. And it is the very drilling industry groups and their members who stand to gain from this package that spend big to make their interests known to lawmakers.
Big Oil interests spend big at the PA State House
The largest oil and gas contributions to PA state representatives last year went to House Speaker Mike Turzai, who NIMSP recorded as receiving nearly $120,000 from the industry. When Turzai rolled out Energize PA with other House Republicans, he relied on a study funded by business interests, including Chevron, to promote the package. Chevron not only gave $20,000 directly to Turzai last year, but the company is a board member of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, which shells out millions to advance industry interests.
Corporate efforts to gain access to lawmakers through donations and lobbying are unabashedly legal. Pennsylvania state laws don’t even limit how much in direct gifts – such as free meals, entertainment, and airline tickets – lawmakers can accept from people who could be trying to influence them.
We must ask who benefits and who is left behind when there is minimal transparency and accountability in this process.
Communities pay the price while polluters prosper
Claims that these types of incentives would spur economic benefits ignore the costs that come down hard on residents. In what Food and Water Watch describe as another “petrochemical sacrifice zone,” fracking chemicals can pollute the air, water, and land with harmful consequences for the communities near these projects.
Look no further than Pennsylvania’s Greene County, where 870 active wells reside and 111 alleged environmental violations have been reported. A devastating report looking at 3 years of state data from 2016 to 2018 discovered that an average of eight children were hospitalized with a cancer diagnosis each day in Pennsylvania, while Greene County held the highest rate of childhood cancer diagnoses in the state.
While no studies so far have directly linked shale gas development to these cancers, fracking involves known and suspected cancer-causing chemicals, and research is severely lagging behind the lived experience reported within local communities.
In the meantime, the polluting continues. And when these companies are handed billions of dollars through corporate welfare schemes, Pennsylvanians are the ones left to foot the bill. This has to change. Lawmakers must be beholden to their constituents, and not, whether perceived or real, to corporate paychecks.