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A New Coalition for a Better Future

As of July 23, 2020, it’s official—Pennsylvania has a law that will award four lucky petrochemical or fertilizer manufacturing entities each $6.6 million a year in tax credits for 26 years to set up shop here. 

Like the $1.65 billion subsidy the state handed Shell for its Beaver County cracker plant, Pennsylvania’s fracked gas industry will once again enjoy the largesse of Pennsylvania taxpayers. The fracked gas industry apparently needs $660 million of the public’s help to optimize the use of Pennsylvania’s Marcellus shale gas into something beyond energy.  

This handout will take its product into the climate-killing and health-risking realm of petrochemical, plastics and fertilizer manufacturing. Apparently the fracked gas industry can’t succeed on the basis of significant private investments alone.

The legislation that made this all possible—HB 732, which was originally crafted to help emergency responders and was amended to include the fracked gas industry tax credit—was a reworking of HB 1100, which also provided a petrochemical subsidy, albeit an open-ended one. That legislation passed both chambers but the Governor vetoed it in March. 

The petrochemical industry’s friends in the state legislature never attempted to overturn that veto because the environmental community and our partners—with the help of many of you—mounted a textbook campaign to call attention to the corporate greed and cronyism that defined that bill. And when the Governor vetoed it, our coalition graciously said thank you, and never spiked the ball to celebrate the formidable victory that it was at the time.

In the end, the fight was among special interests in the state, and legislators chose to do the bidding of the building trade unions and the fracking industry, and not the bidding of mainstream interests that our diverse coalition of environmentalists, community, religious and other business leaders represented.  

This law picks winners—fracked gas, petrochemicals, fertilizers and plastics—and every other business and industry sector is by omission, a loser, and during a pandemic-induced recession where all sectors need help. As an example, what is the legislature and Governor doing to bolster agriculture and tourism, Pennsylvania’s number one and number two industries, respectively?

The deal that became law was struck behind closed doors, by—dare I say it—probably mostly white men. I say “probably” because when environmental leaders like me were asked to be represented at the deal table, we were rejected. Possibly others asked to be part of the conversation and also denied. 

I can say with certainty that after the March 9, 2020 rally in the state capitol held by the 35 groups represented in our HB 1100 coalition, a counter rally was held. During that counter-rally, the proponents of taxpayer giveaways for the petrochemical industry reflected predominately white, male demographics.  

For the most part, the legislators, industry, economic development and union faces that gathered this past Friday in northeast Pennsylvania to celebrate the Governor’s signing of HB 732, media coverage revealed the same predominate demographics.  

And we should expect that the “800” temporary and “150” permanent jobs that each of the four subsidized petrochemical or fertilizer facilities is supposed to employ will also be mostly, and by a large margin, white and male.

Despite a textbook campaign against HB 1100, the interests of many, many Pennsylvanians who desire an economic break from fossil fuels were not represented at the HB 732 deal table. I am concerned that come 2022, when Pennsylvanians go to the polls to elect a new governor—possibly our last chance to seat a leader who is climate-aware and willing to lead all Pennsylvanians into a healthier, prosperous and climate-sane future—we may not be presented a diverse array of candidates.   

We fully appreciate that several early names of possible gubernatorial candidates may very well represent mainstream environmental interests, but no names of women or persons of color are in the rumor mill currently.  

My points here and above should not be taken as anti-male, but we simply need more diversity in the legislature and higher offices in our state for things to change.  Nor should this redux be taken as sour grapes over the significant loss this was for PennFuture’s mission of clean air, water and a healthy climate. It is meant to be a cautionary reminder of how things still work in “the People’s House.”

For things to change, Pennsylvania needs a new coalition, and one powerful enough that legislators will forego the powerful payoff of campaign contributions that drive so much of this dysfunctional power dynamic. If we use Pennsylvania’s primary election as a data point, we saw several races where powerful labor forces supported challengers to pro-environment incumbents—many women—and those challengers lost badly. The electorate is waking up to the dominant political paradigms here and fighting back, but many policymakers lag behind the wishes of Pennsylvanians. 

We must come together to forge a different economic road forward, with family sustaining jobs that protect and improve our environment. We must come together for a sane climate future. We must fight for a future state legislature where four-fifths of its members vote in favor of protecting our communities and the environment rather than in favor of a subsidy for an industry that will do exactly the opposite.  We need a governor who is not reliant upon fracked gas and petrochemicals, and a legislature that is obligated to the electorate, not to powerful labor interests and greedy fossil fuel corporations who are wringing the entrepreneurial and competitive life out of the rest of us and our futures. 

PennFuture’s Democracy for All program is now fully engaged in non-partisan voter registration, voter engagement and get out the vote work.  The people of color and their communities, single women and millennials this program is reaching out to may form the basis of this new coalition and help move Pennsylvania forward along a very different and green path.


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