Editor's note: This story has been updated to include a comment from Gov. Tom Wolf's office.
The prospect of a petrochemical buildout in the Ohio River Valley was already a divisive issue. It was ballyhooed by some as an economic generator and decried by others for greenhouse gas emissions.
That scenario became a bit more polarizing Monday when it got a resounding thumb’s down on economics.
Lacking a formal name but not a purpose, a group of economists and engineers sent letters to the governors of Pennsylvania (Tom Wolf), West Virginia (Jim Justice) and Ohio (Mike DeWine). Organizers, according to an emailed news release, said Monday the tri-state region is “not likely” to experience a major buildout or “the kind of job creation that some predict.”
The letter was cobbled together by eight college-affiliated economists and engineers and John Hanger, former head of the state Department of Environmental Protection. The missive also was distributed to the media, and it begins: “In Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, our goals for economic growth and job creation are being undermined by the mistaken belief that the region’s petrochemical and plastics manufacturing industries are poised to greatly expand and, in the process, generate large numbers of new jobs.
“In fact, no such expansion and jobs boom is likely. And, unless we adopt new and better development strategies, we risk squandering hundreds of millions of dollars in public funds in pursuit of a vision that will not materialize.”
Wolf's press office released a response to the letter Monday night, saying: "The governor continues to support market-based investments in infrastructure that takes advantage of Pennsylvania's natural gas resources, even as we work on a variety of fronts to promote new clean energy infrastructure across the state."
Construction of an ethane cracker plant is well underway in Potter Township, Beaver County, Pa., a facility Shell Chemical Appalachia is erecting along the Ohio River. Production resumed six weeks ago following a shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Two other petrochemical complexes had been discussed for the valley, until the ASCENT project in Wood County, W.Va., was canceled last summer. PTT-DLM still plans to build a cracker in Dilles Bottom, Ohio, but that endeavor is on hold after the company postponed a final investment decision.
Sean O’Leary, a Wheeling, W.Va., native, organized the letter campaign. He describes himself “as an energy analyst type of guy” who has a keen interest in this.
“You have folks who say this is an immense jobs creator and you have the opposing environmental perspective,” he said. “What’s left out is the fact that economics don’t support this. Even if jobs and economic growth were the objective, this is not the way to go there.
“It’s extremely unlikely we’d see the job growth proclaimed by (petrochemical) proponents. We had the sense that anyone who looked at the numbers would come to this conclusion.”
Hanger, the former DEP secretary and current national energy analyst, said in a statement: “Claims that the petrochemical industry will revitalize Western Pennsylvania and its neighbors give people false hope that cruelly build only disappointment and frustration. Fortunately, there is powerful economic development alternative: retrofitting buildings for energy efficiency, building electric vehicles and their parts, as well as manufacturing and installing wind, solar and battery storage.”
James Van Nostrand, director of the Center for Energy and Sustainable Development at West Virginia University’s College of Law, also weighed in. The professor said: “It’s time for the region to stop staking its future on fossil fuels, which has no future.
“The fastest growing sector of the economy is clean energy – energy efficiency and renewables. The region’s efforts are better directed toward establishing policies that attract clean energy investments as well as the large employers who increasingly demand renewable sources of electricity for their energy needs.”
Petrochemical has its supporters as well.
Dan Williamson, a spokesman for PTT-DLM, said in a statement: “The proposed petrochemical complex (in Belmont County) would be a multibillion-dollar investment that would yield a positive economic impact for generations to come. The project is supported by trade unions, economic development advocates and elected officials from both political parties.”
Tom Westfall, president of the West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association, said in a statement: “Natural gas is clean-burning, cost effective and dependable. Its byproducts are critical to everyday life. The industry employs thousands, and its economic impact is huge. Growing the industry means growing the region’s future and moving toward sustained prosperity.
“That includes expanding the petrochemical industry in this region. Cracker plants would bring much needed jobs and tax revenue, and those plants would use our product. We’re natural partners. The economic multipliers would be significant.”
David Spigelmyer, president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, said in a statement: “It’s extremely alarming that at a time when natural gas-enabled products have played a critical role in effectively combating the COVID outbreak, some seek to put American families in harm’s way by threatening the future development of essential and life-saving medical supplies.... Anyone who suggests that we can’t leverage these abundant resources to responsibly power, grow and strengthen our economy is clearly more concerned about politics than progress, facts and science.”
Washington County added a new positive case of COVID-19 Monday, taking its total to 156, while Greene County remained at 30.
The statewide total climbed to 79,121 after 323 new positive cases were announced Monday. The death toll from the virus reached 6,243 after 28 new deaths were added to the total Monday, according to the state Department of Health.
Health Secretary Rachel Levine urged Pennsylvanians to continue taking precautions from the novel coronavirus, including practicing social distancing and wearing masks in public.
“The commonwealth’s careful, measured approach to reopening is working as we see case counts continue to decline even as many other states see increases. But the virus has not gone away,” Levine said.
There were no new deaths from the virus in Washington, Greene, Fayette and Allegheny counties.
Students at area colleges will return to their dorms and in-person classes during the fall semester, with some changes to prevent a resurgence in the coronavirus.
“At this critical moment, the actions of one individual can ripple outward to affect the entire community,” California University of Pennsylvania President Geraldine Jones said in an email to students and staff. “Our reopening plan assumes that you, and every member of our Cal. U community, are committed to its success.”
The changes at Cal. U, Waynesburg University and Penn State’s main and branch campuses include some online instruction and schedule changes, social distancing and requiring students to wear masks.
Cal. U students will start the semester one week early, with classes resuming Aug. 17 and ending before Thanksgiving, so that students will return home before the flu season. Final exams will be held Nov. 20 and Nov. 23 to 25, and students will return to campus in January for the spring semester.
Most classes will be offered both in person and online in real time, and some very large classes will be held online only. Roommates on college campuses will be considered a “family unit.” Masks should be worn in public areas including classrooms, sports venues and performance spaces. Signs and floor decals will remind students and staff to stay 6 feet apart.
“We are acutely aware that COVID-19 remains a threat, especially to vulnerable populations,” Jones said. “At the same time, we believe that Cal. U – with your active participation – can safely resume face-to-face classes and campus life.”
Waynesburg University students will return to classes Aug. 24 as previously scheduled, and in-person classes will be held through Nov. 20. On Nov. 23 and 24, students will revert back to remote learning in most programs, and finals will be administered online Dec. 1 to 4.
“In creating this schedule for the fall semester, safety was a paramount consideration,” said Stacey Brodak, Waynesburg University’s Vice President for Institutional Advancement and University Relations. “We are using the best possible information available at the current time. By finishing early and eliminating breaks, we are making every reasonable effort to mitigate the potential for transmission of COVID-19 on our campus and in the surrounding community.”
Classes at all Penn State campuses, including its Fayette branch, will begin Aug. 24 as planned, but classes will revert back to online instruction after Nov. 20. Students will also have classes on Labor Day.
Penn State students are returning in phases beginning in the summer. Staff are implementing testing and contract-tracing programs, and plans for early treatment.
Classroom spaces will be analyzed to ensure social distancing requirements can be met. All classes of more than 250 students will be online only. Others will be delivered both online and remotely. The university will develop accommodations for at-risk students.
“The importance of each individual’s behavior in stopping the spread of coronavirus cannot be overstated,” said Matt Ferrari, associate professor of biology. “There are a few key elements: Wear personal protective equipment or, for most of our community, face masks; maintain social and physical distancing of at least six feet from other individuals; and wash your hands frequently with soap and water.”
Penn State also has plans in place to revert quickly back to remote learning, if necessary.
Washington & Jefferson College has not yet announced its plan for fall classes.