News

Ohio Legislators Jeopardize Our Environment, Health, Jobs by Supporting Appalachian Petrochemical Hub and (Even More) Plastic

June 19, 2020

Ohio Senate Candidate Kathy Wyenandt looks at Ohio’s energy and environmental policies and says — let’s get back to common sense

Over the past five years, our state legislators have supported construction of an Appalachian Petrochemical Hub along the Ohio River that would compromise our air and water quality as well as increase the amount of plastic in our environment.

From an ecological standpoint, the hub is tragic. Now, from an economic standpoint, it looks like a boondoggle, too.

According to the Ohio Chapter of the Sierra Club, the petrochemical hub is planned to consist of five ethane “cracker” chemical processing plants located in small communities along the Ohio River from Monaca, Pa., to Belmont, Ohio; underground storage centers for fracked gas liquids; and six or more miles of pipeline storage for gas and its byproduct wastes along the Ohio River.

JobsOhio, the state’s private economic development organization, has spent $70 million so far on both the Monaca, Pa., plant and a second plant planned for Belmont County, Ohio. This is not “free” money. JobsOhio receives its funding from state liquor sales tax revenue.

The grants were supposed to create thousands of jobs while the plants were under construction and hundreds of permanent jobs in Ohio afterward.

The planned chemical plants are a part of the natural gas fracking process: fracking is a well-drilling technique using a pressurized, liquid injection including water, and other chemical ingredients deep underground. Ethane waste from natural gas fracking is processed into plastic. The hub will add significantly to global carbon dioxide levels, too.

Construction at the first site, a $6 billion, 340-acre plant in Monaca, is underway now, but has been temporarily halted during the coronavirus pandemic. After its completion in 2021, the Monaca plant is estimated by State Impact Pennsylvania to produce about 1.6 million tons of polyethylene per year. Polyethylene is the main ingredient used to manufacture plastic bags and packaging.

The Columbus Dispatch has reported that the price of plastic has fallen by half over the past five years, from $1 per pound to the 40-60 cent range. There is also a global oversupply of ethane-ethylene plants. Beth Burger, the paper’s environmental writer, said in her story that a group of eight Ohio economists, engineers, public policy analysts and former policymakers are now warning the governors of Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia that they risk “squandering” hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars if they continue to move forward with the hub.

My question is this: at a time when the world is increasingly concerned about our air and water quality, why was the chemical hub considered worthy of a $70 million investment in the first place?

Concern about our environment has been discussed for more than 50 years. And media from Mother Jones to Fox News agree on the global plastics crisis: plastic is killing sea creatures as well as the planet.

Viral images of injured sea turtles with plastic straws in their noses and dead whales with pounds of plastic in their bellies are grim reminders of the Native American saying that we don’t inherit the world from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.

 The average Ohioan may not know that less than 10 percent of all recyclable plastic has ever been recycled. What we did was merely bundle our plastic waste and ship it to other countries for the past 50 years, where the vast majority of it was dumped into landfills and left to drift into lakes, rivers, and waterways to the ocean.

Frontline reported in March in its Plastic Wars report that U.S. chemical companies like Dow Chemical, ExxonMobil, and Dupont and its spin-off, Chemours have promoted recycling for decades, even though they knew widespread plastic recycling would never be economically viable.

Today, our oceans and countries like China, Vietnam, Indonesia, Micronesia, and the Philippines are overwhelmed with decades of “forever” plastic, which doesn’t biodegrade. It merely breaks up into smaller and smaller pieces called nurdles that are ingested by fish, animals and humans.

 The Story of Plastic (2020) estimates eight million tons of plastic are dumped into oceans every year, which is the equivalent of one city garbage truck dumping a load of plastic every minute of every single day.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association’s (NOAA) National Ocean Service reports there are three gyres of plastic and garbage whirling in oceans around the world. (A gyre is a swirling vortex of ocean water hundreds to a thousand miles in diameter.) As early as four years ago, multiple international media outlets reported that if we continue to produce plastic as we have been, by 2050, there will be more plastic than fish by weight in the oceans.

 Too often we look at problems like climate change, air and water quality, and think that those are problems beyond our ability to solve.

That’s wrong.

But if the Appalachian Petrochemical Hub goes forward as planned, we won’t have to wait until 2050 to swim in plastic seas.

And Ohio will be rightfully blamed by the rest of the world for helping accelerate the degradation of our planet while the rest of the world is turning to green energy policies and solutions to try to save it.

Ohio River drinking water quality for five million people is at risk  

Increased pollution of the Ohio River is a big concern with the petrochemical hub. Five million people, including Cincinnatians, depend on the Ohio River for drinking water.

The Environmental Working Group recently tested drinking water in Columbus and Cincinnati and reported the existence of “forever chemicals” there, according to the Columbus Dispatch. Forever chemicals are polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAs) used in the production of non-stick cookware and stain-resistant and water-proof fabrics.

 The negative health effects on a community of forever chemicals dumped in the Ohio River from a DuPont chemical plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia, was the focus of the recent movie Dark Waters (Mark Ruffalo, 2019). Parkersburg is where I lived for several years as a child, before moving back to Ohio.

Air and water pollution already negatively affect our health here in Ohio. We don’t have to risk making it worse with the petrochemical hub.

Methane leaks from fracking industry make up 25 percent of global CO2 total

Natural gas is made up of about 90 percent methane, and includes ethane, propane, butane and pentane. Methane heats our houses, but it also pollutes our air and helps heat the planet. CBS News reports that 60 percent of the global methane release into our air is linked to the U.S. fracked natural gas industry. The Climate Reality Project says the fossil fuel industry contributes 25 percent of the world’s total global methane emissions.

Another thing that makes methane so dangerous, according to the climate project, is that while it doesn’t remain in the air long, methane traps 84 times more heat than CO2 over a 20-year period. 

One of world’s worst methane leaks ever came from Belmont site and lasted 20 days

We’ve already seen signs of what the petrochemical hub might mean for Ohioans and the climate. In February 2018, international media, including the Washington Post and New York Times, reported that the European satellite designed to continually orbit the earth to monitor methane leaks photographed a massive methane leak from a fracked gas well explosion in southeast Ohio’s rural Belmont County, which is located along the Ohio River. Methane escaped into the atmosphere from the fracking well for 20 days.

The amount of escaped methane was measured at 120 metric tons per hour and exceeded the output of all but three European nations for an entire year. A Dutch-American team studying the satellite photos reported that leaks like Belmont’s from fracking wells are likely more common than realized. Newsweek magazine called the Belmont County methane leak one of the largest methane leaks recorded.

The truth is a struggling petrochemical industry may not make the investments necessary to keep citizens and the environment safe from environmental disasters like the Belmont County methane leak.

Ohio and the nation’s ability to engage in effective environmental oversight and protect people from polluted air and water and chemical accidents has dramatically diminished. Andrew Wheeler, a former Ohioan, worked as a gas and oil lobbyist before taking over the EPA.

We’re lucky this is an election year. Ohio voters have the power to change Ohio politics and put our state on the path toward a cleaner environment, better health for citizens and the creation of green, sustainable jobs for the future.

Clean energy jobs are where job growth is for the future—in windmills, solar panels, turbines, and technology related to water purification, as well as the supporting maintenance of those products.

Ohio must go green to secure the jobs of the future

 The world has changed since the hub was originally planned. The oil and gas industry has been beleaguered the last few years by financial problems, with many companies falling into bankruptcy. Drillers took on too much debt and drilled so many wells that the price of oil plunged and bottomed out this spring. OPEC had been flooding the market with cheap oil, too, and when the coronavirus hit, demand fell even lower. Investors leery of corporate debt are shying away.

But while the natural gas price bust may be short term, the move toward renewable energy sources is not.

Countries around the world have already moved past fossil fuels and committed to dramatically reducing their carbon footprints.  Eleven countries began competing in 2016 to become the first nation fueled exclusively by renewable energy. Forbes more than a year ago that China is slated to become the world’s leader in renewable energy.

Yet in the fall of 2019, the Ohio legislature passed House Bill 6, which requires Ohioans to pay close to $1 billion to prop up a statewide fossil-fuel based energy policy. About 4.8 million Ohioans are paying the H.B. 6 tax already in their monthly utility bills to the tune of $150 million a year until 2026.

H.B. 6 put some legislators in a difficult position. It helped preserve some jobs, which is important, but it also locked Ohio into fossil fuel energy solutions at a time when the rest of the world is going green. Meanwhile, much more economic growth – including millions of new jobs – can be realized through green energy solutions like wind and solar, which will power industry, manufacturing and the cities and towns of the future.

Under the new law, Ohio subsidizes two aging nuclear power plants owned by FirstEnergy Solutions of Akron (now operating, since its recent bankruptcy, as the privately-owned Harbor Energy Corp. of Akron), and two 1950s-era, coal-fired plants owned by the Ohio Valley Electric Corp.

“Banning the plastic bag bans” defies common sense

Another environmental topic of interest to Ohioans right now is the proposed statewide ban that stops Ohio communities from banning (or taxing) plastic bags.

That’s right – a ban on a ban.

My opponent, George Lang, not only supports this legislation, he co-sponsored it.

Over the past few years, some Ohio local governments had passed laws banning single-use plastic bags to eliminate litter and save landfill space. Retailers like Kroger had already agreed to eliminate plastic bags in stores by 2025.

This is a curious stance for my opponent, who supported limited government and home rule government when he was a West Chester Township trustee.

Home rule was added to the Ohio constitution in 1912. It gives communities the authority to establish taxes or set fees that protect their interests. Banning potential plastic litter from our communities seems like an easy way to help improve the planet. So why does the state need to get involved, especially when local bag ordinances have been enacted in at least 22 other states?

The Lang-sponsored “ban the plastic bag bans” legislation defies common sense—unless of course, you follow the money.

Following the Money

According to the Ohio Secretary of State’s campaign disclosure reports, Lang received donations to his Committee for George Lang totaling $203,851.57 during the first two months of 2020. In comparison, his opponents in the Republican primary raised $6,300 and $12,135, according to the Journal-News.

Corporate donors who contributed $2,000 or more include:  FirstEnergy Solutions; Duke Energy; Energy Leaders PAC; and Global Retail.

What do those big corporate donors have in common with Lang? His support of legislation supporting the petrochemical hub, the fossil fuel industry bailout and the “plastic bag ban ban”, of course.

A new energy policy for Ohio for the future, not the past

The good news is Ohioans don’t have to live with the energy and environmental decisions of the past. Marilyn Brown, Ph.D., a professor of sustainable systems at the Georgia Institute of Technology’s School of Public Policy, wrote recently in Scientific American magazine that a low-carbon economy in the future is more likely to be a stronger and more secure economy than one based on fossil fuels.  She concluded that a shift to renewable energy would create millions of new jobs.

It’s no longer smart to embrace fossil fuels and plastics. Nearly every one of 197 countries in the world except the United States has joined the Paris Agreement and dedicated itself to cut CO2 emissions to reduce global warming and fight climate change. We need to change energy policies at every level—local, state, national and international—and commit to renewable and sustainable energy solutions not only because it’s the right thing to do for our planet, children and grandchildren, but because green energy jobs are the jobs of the future.

And we can start right now by voting for leaders who put people over politics and money.

COVID-19 interrupted the rhythm of our lives. But it also forced us to slow down, take time with our loved ones, and think seriously and strategically about what we do every day that either improves our lives or detracts from them. We must not only be innovative to think of ways Ohioans can survive in a rapidly changing world, we must create energy solutions that improve the climate and create sustainable, green energy jobs for the future.

I recognize that environmental regulations have a cost for businesses and can make products more expensive. But encouragement for Ohio entrepreneurs and innovation; leveraging workforce talent; fair, transparent laws; and a commitment to developing the jobs of the future can once again put us on the forefront of manufacturing products and systems that move the world forward, not back.

If the results of Ohio public policy are sustainable jobs for workers; clean air and water; increased worker safety; high-quality and fairly financed education; and good public health, then we as government leaders, are doing our jobs.

Ohio’s environmental and energy policies associated with the Appalachian Petrochemical Hub, the fossil fuel energy bailout and “plastic bag ban ban” cater to Big Oil when they need to serve the people of Ohio, not industry interests.

We need leaders who are honest, transparent and unafraid to embrace common sense energy solutions for Ohio.

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Kathy Wyenandt of Liberty Township is running for senator in Ohio Senate District 4. To learn more about the Kathy for Ohio campaign, visit www.kathyforohio.com or connect with her on Twitter at @KathyforOhio, on Facebook and on Instagram. To contact Wyenandt or schedule a virtual coffee fundraiser, call (513) 377-8063.