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As the election approaches, it seems national politics have converged on Southwestern Pennsylvania, each visiting politician equipped with a different sales pitch for opposing futures.
When U.S. Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette visited earlier this week, his vision was unambiguous. The Shell petrochemical complex in Beaver County, Brouillette said, is the “future of the American economy.”
What his vision didn’t include, however, was even a basic understanding of climate change. In response to questions about the scientific consensus of human-caused climate change, he arrogantly responded that “no one knows that.”
The secretary is right about one thing, though: A petrochemical future requires absolute climate denial. This is because the petrochemical industry intends to double its carbon emisssions just as other industries and sectors get serious about taking climate action.
According to Brouillette, it is unrealistic to even consider serious climate action.
“Today in the marketplace, renewable power is almost entirely dependent on fossil fuels and nuclear technology,” he told reporters. “No one wants to say that out loud because it sounds politically incorrect at times.”
Instead, his Department has taken an “all of the above” approach to energy development that, in practice, means climate denial, understating the potential of renewable technologies, and an all-out endorsement of fossil fuels.
As if having a climate change-denying energy secretary wasn’t enough, Brouillette quickly showed that he lacks even a basic understanding of our economy.
The petrochemical industry that he touts as “the future of the American economy” was under extreme financial duress even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. It’s an industry that relies on taxpayer handouts merely to stay afloat, an industry dependent upon a nearly impossible increase in plastics demand. Faced with pending market oversupply, billions of dollars worth of petrochemical projects have already been abandoned or put on hold.
To obscure the ongoing failures of the fracked gas and petrochemical industry, Brouillette grossly exaggerates the number of Pennsylvania oil and gas jobs, using an oft-repeated and debunked claim that overstates the number by at least 600 percent. He then falsely claims that the petrochemical industry would bring up to 100,000 new jobs to Pennsylvania.
In contrast to petrochemicals, the renewable energy sector continues to grow exponentially, far outpacing the growth of shale gas and oil in job creation and energy generation. With only 4 percent of U.S. energy consumption attributed to solar and wind, there is plentiful opportunity – some might even say necessity – for future growth.
Meanwhile, the fact that the fossil fuel industry has been forced into a nationwide stagnation resulting in layoffs, debt, and bankruptcy has not deterred Brouillette’s enthusiasm, even as the so-called “energy companies” increasingly turn towards non-energy products like plastics, fertilizers, and other chemicals for profit growth.
Yet Brouillette and his Department of Energy continue to promote the development of an Appalachian petrochemical hub, despite or perhaps because of the industry's continued struggle to get off the ground.
Secretary Brouillette’s personalized tour of the Shell Petrochemical Plant last week was in fact preceded by a June 2020 report on the future of petrochemicals in Appalachia, stressing the necessity of maximizing public support for the industry. The report says that regional petrochemical growth requires the public sector to abandon its “business-as-usual” approach and embrace the industry with public (i.e. taxpayer) investment, supportive policies, and propaganda about the potential economic opportunity.
In Pennsylvania, this means a $1.65 billion tax break for Shell Petrochemicals, a $667.5 million tax break for qualifying petrochemical plants, and a persistent misinformation campaign about the number of fracking jobs in the state.
“The competitive aspects of [the Shell Petrochemical Plant] is just enormous,” he assured reporters last week, as his dystopian vision of Pennsylvania’s future materialized before his eyes. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see competitors to Shell show up in the very near future.”
It goes to show that, regardless of the end product, Brouillette’s Energy Department is more invested in fossil fuel exploitation than it is in securing a secure and sustainable energy supply for our country.