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  • Writer's pictureEnvironmental Health Project

Gov. Shapiro’s Record on Shale Gas and Health: A Look at the Grand Jury Recommendations One Year In

Governor Josh Shapiro wearing a suit and blue tie looks stern wearing rimless glasses. A crowd is blurred behind him in the background.
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Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro has now had a little over a year in office to address public health concerns around shale gas development (also called “fracking”). He talked about this issue passionately when he was attorney general and specifically vowed to address recommendations made in a Grand Jury Report on shale gas development released in 2020. Let’s take a look at the action Gov. Shapiro has taken so far with respect to the Grand Jury Report recommendations.

1. “Expanding no-drill zones in Pennsylvania from the required 500 feet to 2,500 feet”

Last November, the governor announced a collaboration with CNX Resources, a gas extraction operator headquartered in Southwestern Pennsylvania, to purportedly provide “radical transparency” on their operations. Setting aside the many problematic issues this collaboration presents, one specific issue deals with “no drill zones,” or setback distances, outlined in a Statement of Mutual Interests between the governor and CNX. In the statement, CNX agreed to voluntarily increase the legally required setback of 500 feet between gas wells and occupied buildings to 600 feet, with a 2,500-foot setback from schools and hospitals.

While the CNX setbacks are a marginal increase over current requirements, they are a major step backward from the Grand Jury Report, which recommended a 2,500-foot setback from all buildings, including residences. We have no evidence that shale gas development can be done without harm to human health, and there is no established “safe” distance from well pads. However, when it comes to protecting public health, farther is always better. Moreover, the voluntary nature of the CNX collaboration is far weaker than if the setbacks were mandated by law and enforced by agency officials.

What can Gov. Shapiro do?

Setback distances are currently governed by Pennsylvania Act 13 (2012), which established certain legal requirements around shale gas development. The governor can use his leadership position to urge the General Assembly to pass legislation mandating greater setbacks, thus amending Act 13, for not just one gas operator but all operators. As governor, Shapiro has yet to publicly call for legislative action on this issue.

2. “Requiring fracking companies to publicly disclose all chemicals used in drilling and hydraulic fracturing before they are used on-site”

In January 2024, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) announced it will implement new policies to require gas operators to publicly disclose chemicals they use in drilling and hydraulic fracturing earlier in the well development process. Previously, operators were required to keep a list of chemicals on hand but didn’t have to provide it to the DEP unless it was requested. Disclosure to the public was made by each operator’s voluntary participation in FracFocus, the national hydraulic fracturing chemical disclosure registry. Now, when issuing permits for new shale wells, the DEP will require operators to submit a list of chemicals they intend to use in their site-specific Preparedness, Prevention, and Contingency (PPC) plans prior to drilling, and DEP will post the PPC documents online.

While this new policy may seem to create greater transparency, one major caveat still exists: Pennsylvania law does not require operators to disclose chemical blends if they are considered proprietary or a trade secret. Many of the chemicals involved in the fracking process will still not be made available to the public or to the government officials and emergency preparedness and response teams that require this data when leaks or spills occur.

It should also be noted that the disclosure of chemicals does not in any way impact the permitting of a well since the disclosure comes after the well permit has already been issued. Even more importantly, the chemicals that go into the ground are only one part of the problem. Wastewater that comes back to the surface after the well is fracked contains additional toxic and naturally occurring radioactive elements that put public health at further risk.

What can Gov. Shapiro do?

Gov. Shapiro can press the legislature to require operators to disclose chemical blends even if they are considered proprietary or a trade secret. This disclosure should be made preferably to the public generally but at a bare minimum to government agencies, public works administrators, and emergency preparedness and response teams that require this data. Gov. Shapiro can also urge the legislature to consider the full lifecycle of all toxic pollutants involved in shale gas development when requiring operators to disclose what goes into the ground and what comes out.

3. “Conducting a comprehensive health response to the effects of living near unconventional drilling sites”

Over the past year, Gov. Shapiro has had many opportunities to acknowledge the settled research on health impacts from the shale gas industry. Dozens of peer-reviewed epidemiologic studies and hundreds of other investigations conducted over the last decade already point to a range of health harms from exposure to shale gas emissions, particularly from well pads. The governor has so far failed to recognize this research.

One example of the governor’s departure from his priorities as attorney general is his silence on the Pennsylvania Health and Environment studies, three new taxpayer-funded studies released last year. These studies revealed higher risks of asthma, cancer, and adverse birth outcomes for people living near well pads. Some of those impacts were noted at distances as far as 10 miles away, with higher risks noted at closer distances. Governor Shapiro has yet to release a statement about the findings of those studies and instead has called for future research that will delay necessary actions for many more years.

The agencies under the direction of Gov. Shapiro also have a part to play in a comprehensive health response to shale gas pollution. To date, the DOH has made little progress in directly educating residents on the risks of exposure to this pollution. DOH staff held one community meeting (on the Health and Environment studies) and expressed their intention to release educational materials and a report on the state’s cancer registry data. Yet, despite increasing their capacity to respond to resident complaints, the department has taken few meaningful steps to establish a direct, trustworthy relationship with families already suffering health impacts and those who may suffer in the future. While the DOH does meet with a handful of community nonprofit organizations to hear concerns and learn more about the associated health issues, it can do much more to help protect communities from clear health harms with a clear directive from the governor.

In his draft 2024-25 budget, Gov. Shapiro proposed a 19% increase in funding for the DEP, amounting to $40 million in additional support that would add 59 new DEP jobs. A total of 40 of these jobs are slated for the permitting division of DEP. While a more robust permitting staff might help to weed out wells that don’t meet state guidelines, it begs the question: Does this ramp up in permitting division hiring signal a desire to increase approval for more shale gas wells and the related petrochemical and gas-fueled hydrogen plants, and to do so quickly, thus exacerbating the imbalance we’re already seeing with insufficient field staff to investigate violations?

So far, as his 10-year Economic Plan shows, Gov. Shapiro has indicated little intention to slow the permitting of new wells in any meaningful way or to hold operators more accountable for the leaks, spills, and routine pollution they emit. Instead, he has introduced energy initiatives, such as the Pennsylvania Reliable Energy Sustainability Standard (PRESS), that sound as if they promote a clean-energy economy but don’t. In both the economic plan and the PRESS standard, the term “clean energy” includes polluting industries such as shale gas development and fossil fuel-based hydrogen, which will continue to put the public at risk of a host of health harms.

The governor himself acknowledges that Pennsylvania is 45th in the nation in terms of investing in clean energy sources like wind, solar, and hydropower. Yet, further promotion of shale gas and fossil fuel-sourced hydrogen fails to improve that dismal record. As communities on the front lines of shale gas development know, this greenwashing of polluting industries serves only to prolong the unwelcome health risks experienced by thousands of Pennsylvania families.

What can Gov. Shapiro do?

A “comprehensive health response” would require the governor to:

  • Consider the vast amount of research showing serious health impacts from shale gas development, acknowledge the inherent health risks in these operations, and take action to reduce these risks.

  • Direct the Pennsylvania Department of Health (DOH) to actively engage residents on the risks of exposure to shale gas pollution and how they can best protect themselves and their families from harm.

  • Empower the DEP to regulate the shale gas industry with strong rules that include punitive damages should an operator fail to meet these requirements and tough enforcement when they don’t.

  • Concede that, because of the associated public health risks, any fossil fuel-based energy is not a clean energy option.

A comprehensive health response must include a recognition of the health impacts associated with shale gas drilling and provisions for fully funded and staffed agencies with strong enforcement authority. Holding profit-motivated industries in check is one role governments must assume to best defend public health.

4. Other Recommendations from the Grand Jury Report

The Shapiro Administration has not yet addressed other recommendations from the Grand Jury Report on an industry-wide basis. These include:

  • “Requiring the regulation of gathering lines, used to transport unconventional gas hundreds of miles”

  • “Adding up all sources of air pollution in a given area to accurately assess air quality”

  • “Requiring safer transport of the contaminated waste created from fracking sites”

  • “Limiting the ability of Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection employees to be employed in the private sector immediately after leaving the Department”

  • “Allowing the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General original criminal jurisdiction over unconventional oil and gas companies”

In the statement between Shapiro and CNX, CNX volunteered to address some of the above recommendations, particularly around gathering lines, transport, and hiring DEP employees. However, none of these recommendations have been codified in state regulations or legislation, so none have been made mandatory industrywide.

What can Gov. Shapiro do?

Before more residents are harmed by shale gas pollution, we encourage the Shapiro Administration to take quick agency action to address some of the recommendations that are within the purview of the administration. Regulating gathering lines, aggregating all sources of pollution when evaluating permits, and requiring that contaminated waste be handled safely are all within the scope of the DEP’s authority. Where legislation is required to advance other recommendations, we urge the governor to press the Pennsylvania General Assembly to act.

Governor Josh Shapiro wearing a suit and blue tie speaks at a podium with Lieutenant Governor Austin Davis at his side.
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Overall Assessment

Gov. Shapiro has had ample time to introduce agency policies and use his position of power to influence legislators and other decision makers when it comes to protecting residents from harms associated with shale gas development. He still has time during his first term to address this vital public health issue. However, many residents continue to deal with the serious health consequences of a polluting industry operating where they live, work, play, learn, worship, and heal.

Pennsylvania is not in the position to wait for more information and “one more study” before acting, a delay that will allow more people to be harmed. As then-Attorney General Shapiro demanded in the Grand Jury report, the governor must take swift action to address the recommendations put forth, as well as other health-protective measures, to defend the health of communities and families.


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