Fact checking Gov. Tom Wolf’s KDKA radio interview on cracker plants and natural gas | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Fact checking Gov. Tom Wolf’s KDKA radio interview on cracker plants and natural gas

Fact checking Gov. Tom Wolf’s KDKA radio interview on cracker plants and natural gas
Photo: Commonwealth of Pennsylvania
Gov. Tom Wolf
Two weeks ago, following statements against future development of cracker plants made by Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald went on KDKA radio and gave an interview full of boosterism for natural-gas drilling, aka fracking, and of potential future cracker plants.

Petrochemical plants, aka cracker plants, refine natural gas into plastic pellets. The region’s first cracker plant is currently being constructed in Beaver County by oil giant Shell, which will likely be fueled by natural gas fracked in the Southwestern Pennsylvania region.

Yesterday, Gov. Tom Wolf (D-York) followed suit during an appearance on Larry Richert and John Shumway’s show, talking about the future cracker plants and his support for the petrochemical and natural gas industries.

Wolf claimed in the roughly six-minute interview that cracker plants and continuation of the natural gas industry would be a net good for the environment, and disagreed with Peduto’s denouncement of the petrochemical industry.

City Paper has identified three major claims made by Wolf and has fact-checked them to determine their accuracy.

Claim 1: Lightweight plastics created at cracker plants will be part of a sustainable future

Wolf said that lightweight plastic products that will be produced from plastic pellets made at cracker plants will be part of an “energy sustainable future” and will supply materials for light-weight vehicles.

When asked to elaborate, Wolf spokesperson J.J. Abbott wrote to CP that Wolf “was pointing to the fact that lightweight plastics have been helpful in improving fuel economy in vehicles and reducing the energy intensity of other products because they help reduce weight when replacing other heavier materials. This reduction of weight helps improve gas mileage and can reduce the energy required for shipping.”

According to the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, a 10 percent reduction in vehicle weight can result in a 6-8 percent fuel economy improvement and that vehicle chassis can be reduced in weight due to a combination of “lightweight materials such as high-strength steel, magnesium (Mg) alloys, aluminum (Al) alloys, carbon fiber, and polymer composites.”

Plastics would only provide some of that reduction and a 2012 report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration concluded that utilizing special plastics resulted in reducing a vehicle's weight by 19 percent. This would result in about a 13 percent increase in fuel economy.

According to the United Nations, global greenhouse gas emissions need to drop by 55 percent by 2030 in order to keep the possibility of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees.

Even as cars have become more fuel-efficient over the years (the EPA says American cars have increased average fuel efficiency by about 24 percent since 2005) and CO2 emissions per vehicle have also dropped over the same time span, overall greenhouse emissions from transportation have been slowly increasing since 2012. This is likely being driven by the fact that more Americans are driving each year.

Wolf didn’t mention if and/or how the cracker plant or fracking industry will help reduce driving rates in Pennsylvania or the Pittsburgh area. Coincidentally, a new toll road, the Southern Beltway, is currently being constructed and will create another vehicle route running along Southern Allegheny County, connecting the Parkway West to the Pennsylvania Turnpike in the east.

Claim 2: The cracker plant will help Pittsburgh get cleaner air and water

The topic of electricity generation was brought up to Wolf when the interviewer falsely claimed most of our electricity is generated from coal. The biggest share of Pennsylvania’s electricity is generated from natural gas, followed closely by nuclear power, and coal is a distant third. In the U.S., natural gas is the biggest contributor to electricity generation, with coal second, but falling fast.

Regardless, Wolf said, “We all want clean air and clean water and we have to ask what is the best way to get there? What is coming out of the cracker plant is part of that energy-efficient future.”

The Beaver County cracker plant has been permitted to emit 2.2 million tons of carbon dioxide, which is the equivalent of adding more than 480,000 cars to the region. According to census figures, about 969,000 people in the Pittsburgh region commute to work by car, truck, or van.

Adding 2.2 million tons of CO2 emissions will be the equivalent of increasing the number of car commuters by about 50 percent. Pittsburgh already has some of the worst air quality of any large U.S. metro area.

Fracking, which would have to continue in the region to fuel cracker plants, has links to water contamination. A 2016 study in Environmental Science and Technology suggests that wells and groundwater in Wyoming were contaminated by fracking.

According to the Penn Capital-Star, “No studies have shown a definitive cause and effect relationship between the industrial process and health risks.”

However, studies have shown that proximity to fracking wells has led to respiratory issues and low birth weights of infants. Local environmentalists have also decried a rare string of cancer cases in Washington County, which is home the most fracking wells in the region.

According to Rolling Stone magazine, an 85-mile stretch along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans contains more than 150 oil and petrochemical facilities, and this area is home to seven of the 10 census tracts with the highest cancer risk in the nation.

The governor’s office did not specifically respond to requests about this claim.

Claim 3: Banning fracking won’t help the transition to renewable energy

When asked for his thoughts on some Democratic presidential candidates wanting to ban fracking, Wolf downplayed those calls. He claimed that banning fracking wouldn’t benefit a transition to renewable energy.

“We need to get to that solar future, that wind future, as quickly as possible,” said Wolf. “How do we do that? It’s not by banning fracking.”

However, natural gas is a direct competitor of renewables in the energy market. The idea that natural gas is a bridge between dirtier coal and cleaner renewables is a common talking point of natural gas boosters.

But, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the energy market for generating electricity in the United States is made up of five main players: coal, hydropower, natural gas, nonhydro renewables (wind, solar), and nuclear. Coal has been rapidly dropping over the years, as nonhydro renewables have been surging. Natural gas has also been growing, with nuclear and hydropower remaining steady.

Eventually, as coal continued to decline (a coal-fired power plant recently shut down in Beaver County), the market share of growing players will create a direct competition of natural gas and nonhydro renewables. They could both even out, and then share the market evenly, but there are signs that renewables are starting to beat natural gas.

Oklahoma's natural gas industry saw significant growth in the early 2000s, but it started to level off around 2012. Since then, the Sooner State has seen an explosion of wind power, which has grown faster than even the most productive time of Oklahoma’s fracking boom from 2000-2006.

Mark Yates of pro-renewable Advanced Power Alliance, told The Oklahoman in June that wind and solar projects are likely to continue in Oklahoma.

"A lot of the studies we've seen now show that even without subsidies at the federal or state level, we're seeing levelized costs come down to the point where depending on where you are in the nation, solar and wind are even more competitive than cheap natural gas," Yates said.

In Pennsylvania, electricity generated by natural gas has more than doubled since 2010 and coal-powered electricity has plummeted. Nuclear is still a big generator, but as of June, more than 47 percent of Pennsylvania's electricity was generated by natural gas and nuclear had declined to about 32 percent.

Coal was only 17 percent and the remaining 3 percent were renewables.

Natural gas growth appears to be driven by the state’s large reserves in the Marcellus Shale basin. Pennsylvania's natural gas production reached about 6.2 trillion cubic feet in 2018, which is almost 11 times larger than it was in 2010. The state has also become a large exporter of natural gas.

According to the EIA, Appalachian Mountain crests like those in the southwest and northeast, as well as areas along the state's Lake Erie shoreline, have wind resources suitable for commercial power production. There are about 16 wind power plants located throughout southwestern and central Pennsylvania. There are a handful more in the Northeast, but none located along the Lake Erie shoreline.

A recent study from the Rocky Mountain Institute, predicts that renewables will overtake natural gas as the country’s biggest electricity producer by 2035. An oil-and-gas trade publication has questioned the boldness of those claims but still recognizes that the natural gas industry is taking several steps to improve efficiency in order to remain competitive.

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