Patricia DeMarco Ph.D.

"Live in harmony with nature."

Wrong Way! A Call for a New American Dream

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Wrong Way! A Call for A New American Dream

January 6, 2017

by Patricia M. DeMarco

The proposed Shell Chemical Appalachia Plant to produce polyethylene plastic pellets from Marcellus and Utica shale gas in Potter Township, Beaver County PA, highlights two of the most important issues of our time: human-induced climate change and global pollution from man-made chemicals. In our lifetime, these existential crises threaten the survival of life, as we know it. But even as the data indicate ever more serious manifestations of these two challenges, the United States is retrenching around fossil-based industries. Each decision we make about how we use and develop resources reaches far into the future with implications for hundreds of years beyond our own time. The direction a society takes rarely changes with a single decision. Rather, an accumulation of decisions taken at the local, state and national levels create a body of accumulated positions embedded in law and precedent. Changing direction in the face of such a policy construct requires a new vision and a deliberate revision of the policy infrastructure.

Scientists and observers worldwide document increasingly dire events, with accompanying predictions of inevitable disaster from climate change and global pollution:

  • Average global temperatures rising and average carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reaching 400 parts per million;
  • Collapse of the Antarctic ice sheets;
  • shrinking of the arctic polar sea ice;
  • inundation of sea level islands and coastal communities,
  • widespread bleaching of sea corals and coral reef communities;
  • erratic and severe weather patterns producing extreme storm events;
  • prolonged droughts and advance of deserts;
  • slowing of the ocean currents;
  • loss of biodiversity and increasing rates of extinction of species worldwide.[1]

These documented facts describe the increasingly unhealthy condition of the living planet Earth. The complexity of living systems, refined over millions of years of evolution, complicate the process of making rapid, effective policy responses even in the face of such dire facts.

The socio-political processes themselves have a complexity vested in laws that run counter to the laws of chemistry, physics and biology that operate living ecosystems. To examine how these intersecting processes can be changed, it is instructive to look at decisions made around a specific project, the Shell Appalachian Petrochemical Project. The underpinnings of the modern petrochemical/energy industry trace all the way back to the initial colonization and development of America. Federal lands granted for mining, logging and ranching grounded the American continental dominance from coast to coast. Many of the entitlements and land use practices established in the laws of the 1800s remain in effect as $20.5 billion annual fossil industry subsidies today.[2]

The advance of hydraulic fracturing to develop and extract fossil methane and associated liquids from deep in the Earth has attracted chemical industry interest as a relatively inexpensive domestic feedstock. The National Energy Act of 2005 abatement of seven federal environmental and public health protections(the Halliburton Loophole)  to expedite hydraulic fracturing for fossil gas and oil bears fruit in a new petrochemical industry in 39 states, including western Pennsylvania. The shale gas supply development has been shifting investment in refineries and production facilities away from traditional locations on the coasts – Galveston and Houston Texas; Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Patterson, New Jersey. All of these locations have centered their chemical industries on petroleum refining from domestic and imported feedstock. They are characterized by the flares and emission plumes of noxious materials, with environmental and health consequences that affect the surrounding communities. The $377 billion valued industry does not count the expense of health problems of workers and communities or degraded environmental conditions among the costs.[3] The profits accrue to the industry; the costs, estimated at $238 million annually, fall on the people, communities and taxpayers.[4] This industry advance was the direct result of the Halliburton Loophole, engineered into the National Energy Act of 2005 by Vice President Chaney, former CEO of Halliburton, the manufacturer of chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing. This is evidence of what happens when high powered government officials are vested in private corporate interests. The public interest was swept aside.

Attracted by proximity to relatively inexpensive domestic wet gas feed stocks from Marcellus and Utica Shale deposits, augmented by $1.65 Billion in subsidies and incentives from the State of Pennsylvania, Royal Dutch Shell bought the former Horsehhead Zinc facility and is planning to build a new petrochemical processing complex to make polypropylene.[5] The facility will consist of an ethylene manufacturing process, three polyethylene manufacturing lines, three natural gas-fired combustion turbines, and various auxiliary and support equipment. The Shell Appalachian Plant in Potter Township will emit 2,248,293 tons per year of carbon dioxide and produce 1.6 million metric tons of polyethylene per year. Shell claims 2,000 construction jobs and about 600 permanent jobs associated with the plant. Their permit applications are carefully crafted to ride within the allowable provisions of complex regulatory requirements, trading future emissions against past permits of closed plants. Concerns about climate change, community health and environmental degradation fall “outside the scope of these proceedings.”[6] This plant may be within the law, but it is ethically and morally wrong.

The socio-political system of laws and regulations is not constructed to consider existential challenges! This plant will come into full production capacity in 2020, when targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions to control global warming and climate change call for steep reductions in CO2 from industrial operations.[7] In addition, polyethylene is a precursor for the manufacture of plastic disposable containers, products like plastic dishware, plastic bags and other single-use commodities. Over 90% of this material will end up in landfill or in the oceans. In effect, fossil deposits of methane from deep underground are extracted, under an exemption from seven federal environmental and worker protections, to be heated and cracked into elements to make plastics manufactured into single-use materials that will end up discarded into landfills or washed into the ocean. In any but strict short-term economic criteria, this is a losing value proposition. This process causes degradation to the environment, quality of life and health of surrounding communities, and poses a threat to the well-being of children, elderly, and sensitive populations across a broad region. The effects of this action will manifest over hundreds of years adding to the cumulative destruction of the living Earth.

The justification is “JOBS!” In a region afflicted with loss of traditional industries, there has been no re-investment policy, no social safety net to help communities adjust, rebuild and regenerate around more sustainable pursuits to support the economy. Beginning with the Tax Reform Act of 1986, the press toward a single metric for evaluating the effect of government has driven policies more and more toward eliminating environmental protections and social services, defined as “wasteful” or harmful to business. The concept of the role of government being limited to defense and keeping the peace while leaving business to run at will has taken over the value system of America. The result has been a widening division in society with wealth concentrated in a shrinking top tier and the middle class shrinking into debt and despair.

The American values of social equity, and public trust for the management of the nations resources have shrunk in the face of the onslaught by corporate dominance of government. The Citizens United ruling granting the rights of “persons” to corporations accelerated the trend toward governance for the sake of corporate interests. It may have once been true that what was good for business was good for America, but in modern times of multinational corporate dominance, what is good for companies like EXXON may certainly harm the average citizen. Citizens and Corporate Persons are not a congruent population. Corporations do not feel hunger, sorrow, or pain. They do not breathe or bleed. A government dominated by corporate interests has no soul. Rulings from such a body will focus on the immediate economic gains, even if they sacrifice the workers, the community and the future.

A policy direction that fully embraces the serious global issues we face as Americans and as the human race can reaffirm essential social and environmental protections without sacrificing a sound economy.[8] Policies and the infrastructure of laws and regulations to shift direction to a socially equitable and environmentally sustainable society can recapture the full greatness of America. The window of time for action is narrow and closing. But with determination and a shared vision of success, a shift to a society based on renewable energy systems, regenerative agriculture and green chemistry production in a circular materials management system can flourish. This is the New American Dream.

References and Sources

[1] Ralph J. Cicerone and Sir Paul Nurse (Eds.) Climate Change: Evidence and Causes. (National Academy of Sciences and the UK Royal Society. Washington D.C., 2017) https://www.nap.edu/catalog/18730/climate-change-evidence-and-causes

[2] Elizabeth Bast, Alex Doukas, Sam Pickard, Laurie van der Burg and Shelagh Whitley. “Empty Promises: G-20 Subsidies to oil gas and coal production.” Oil Change International, November 2015. Accessed January 3, 2017. http://priceofoil.org/content/uploads/2015/11/Empty-promises_main-report.2015.pdf

[3] Statista. Facts on the Chemical Industry in the United States. 2015. https://www.statista.com/topics/1526/chemical-industry-in-the-us/ Accessed January 5, 2016.

[4] Physicians for Social Responsibility. Cancer and Toxic Chemicals.         http://www.psr.org/environment-and-health/confronting-toxics/cancer-and-toxic-chemicals.html?referrer=https://www.google.com/ Accessed January 5, 2016.

[5] Tim Schooley. “”Pennsylvania’s Biggest Corporate Subsidies.” Pittsburgh Business Times. March 14, 2014. http://www.bizjournals.com/pittsburgh/news/2014/03/14/pennsylvanias-most-subsidized-companies.html Accessed January 5, 2016.

[6] Mark R. Gorog, Regional Manager, Air Quality Program. “Comment and Response Document RE: Shell Chemical Appalachia LLC Petrochemicals Complex and Polyethylene Manufacturing, Air Quality Permit” File PA -04-00740A. June 18, 2015. Page 36.

[7] United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The Paris Agreement. December 15, 2015. http://unfccc.int/paris_agreement/items/9485.php Accessed January 5, 2017.

[8] For concise analysis of the green jobs economy see the following reports, among many others.   https://www.rockefellerfoundation.org/blog/sustainable-employment-green-us/   and https://thinkprogress.org/bureau-of-labor-statistics-reports-3-1-million-u-s-green-jobs-top-5-takeaways-83ddaa3dfb54#.ladqohajd

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