Community groups urge U.S. Department of Energy to halt gas, ethane development

More than one hundred environmental and community advocates described the devastating threats to public health and safety posed by petrochemical development in Appalachia and the Gulf South during a public hearing organized by the Department of Energy’s Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management on Tuesday. 

According to the Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management, the hearing, titled, “Understanding the Impact of Ethane Development on the Environmental and Health Conditions for Local Communities as Well as the Carbon Budget,” was directed by Congress under the FY2021 Omnibus Bill to examine domestic and international trade considerations of ethane and the economic benefits of further domestic use. The agency invited public participation during a “listening session” to discuss the community, economic, and environmental impacts of ethane development. 

While two presenters from the Appalachian region were invited by DOE to share policy perspectives at the top of the meeting (including ORVI Senior Researcher Sean O’Leary), a presenter from the Gulf South was not included in these opening presentations. Given the outsize role of the Gulf South in domestic ethane development and the severe and well-documented community impacts to residents, particularly black and indigenous residents, in that region, this omission was met with significant opposition from participants.

Throughout the meeting, hundreds of comments flooded the hearing’s text-based messaging platform expressing near-unanimous opposition to ethane development, citing peer-reviewed studies on petrochemical health impacts, conveying personal stories of pollution exposure, and channeling grief and frustration at the Department of Energy’s hearing process and design. Commenters urged the Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management to heed frontline experiences of petrochemical harm when considering future ethane use. 

The following speakers presented during the allocated “Listening Session.” 


  • Jane Patton (@soopajane), Center for International Environmental Law, criticized the Department of Energy’s stressful and severely limited public hearing process. Because the hearing was so unconducive to public comments, “we’re not having a full conversation about these impacts,” she said. Patton urged the Department of Energy to review the decades of environmental impact studies outlining the harmful impacts of petrochemical development. 
  • Jill Hunkler (@JillHunkler), Concerned Ohio River Residents, described the ways in which Appalachia is already seeing the devastation from gas-related air pollution. Compounding emissions with petrochemical development would ramp up the climate crisis and create a bigger public health crisis, she said. Hunkler, a seventh-generation Ohio Valley resident, also shared how she was forced from her family home by fracking development. 
  • Lisa Graves Marcucci (@4cleanearth), Environmental Integrity Project, recalled the Revolution Pipeline explosion in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, which made national news. Unstable pipelines continue to be constructed in the region, and violations are rarely treated with sufficient scrutiny. “Sadly, it’s not a question of if but when another tragedy is going to occur,” she said.
  • Heaven Sensky (@HeavenSensky), Center for Coalfield Justice, grew up in a small natural gas community in Washington County, Pennsylvania. At a young age, a close friend developed Ewing sarcoma, a rare form of childhood bone cancer. Since then, her town has seen more than 27 cases of a disease that afflicts just 2.93 children per 1,000,000 annually. “Is profit worth sacrificing entire communities for?” she asked. 
  • Matt Mehalik, Breathe Project, asserted that the region needs clean jobs that don’t present danger to our workers. “We should not be spending public funds on loan guarantees for an industry that privatizes profits and socializes costs.”
  • Scott Eustis, HealthyGulf, noted that the highly polluting petrochemical infrastructure along the Gulf Coast is vulnerable to storms. The Gulf is full of water-based communities that can’t easily be evacuated, and there are no emergency communication lines between energy and environmental agencies and the local residents they are supposed to serve. Eustis urged the Department of Energy to “come down to the Coast during hurricane season” to learn about the health and safety impacts of petrochemical development. 
  • Wilma Subra, Louisiana Environmental Action Network, pointed out the huge quantities of methane and toxic chemicals that result in chronic and acute health impacts among fenceline community members. “We need to reduce allowed permit emissions and control accidental releases and upsets to safeguard the health of frontline residents,” she said. 
  • Sylvia McKenzie, Louisiana resident and member of the Frontline River Parish, is a voice and advocate for her community and family. “We’re educating ourselves to protect ourselves,” she said. “It’s a disgrace when you go to St. James Parish and the pollution is so heavy that you can’t breathe. It’s in the air, it’s in the water, it’s in the soil.”
  • Adam Carlesco (@AdamCarlesco), Food and Water Watch, invoked the dire findings of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, which foretells the collapse of human civilization if our current course is not reversed. The largest wildfires in human history are being recorded in California and Siberia. We’ve reached a 1:3 ratio of plastics to fish in the ocean, which is expected to climb to 1:1 by 2050. “Take a broad look at what we’re doing here,” he said. “The minor economic benefits and ‘value chain added’ pale in comparison to climate inaction.”
  • Darryl Malek-Wiley (@DarrylMW), Sierra Club, urged DOE to think about how they’re going to transition economies in Appalachia and the Gulf from petrochemical and gas dependence to clean energy sources, like solar. Study details link between pollution, poverty, and race. Where’s the grant program to put solar on every school and low-income house in LA? Where’s the funding to weatherize and retrofit homes in LA? That’s how to revitalize the economy in a non-petrochemical way. 
  • Bill Limpert, Citizen, said that climate change will kill more people than every war in recent history combined. We’ve already reached tipping points, including sea level rise, ocean acidification, and a lack of oxygen in the ocean, that are irreversible. The only way to climb out of the hole is to stop all fossil fuel use. Limpert thinks it’s time for DOE to shift its priorities to inexhaustible, robust, and free renewable energy. 
  • Stafford Frank, Concerned Citizens of Mossvile, explained how petrochemical companies have overrun the community of Mossville over the years. “The way regulations are written, fenceline communities don’t stand a chance,” he said. “It’s population-based, and because few people live along the fenceline, petrochemical companies can come in and do what they want, and the state hides behind the regulations.”
  • Matt Kelso, FracTracker Alliance, noted that the official carbon emission estimates of the Shell ethane cracker don’t even include the upstream pollution and emissions resulting from pipelines, shipping, and other sources. Moreover, every pipeline constructed with a 50-foot right of way clears three acres of vegetation that act as a carbon sink, Kelso noted, causing “permanent reductions to the ability of the planet to deal with the problems foisted upon it.”
  • Yvette Arrellano (@Regularisms), Fenceline Watch, outlined two local chemical explosions within the last month.  The incidents released 130,000 pounds of emissions, killing two and hospitalizing 30 with respiratory issues and severe burns. Arrellano urged the Department of Energy to establish workplace protections for whistleblowers, maintain continuous, public-facing air monitoring and testing to help communities, and conduct a comprehensive study detailing pollution impacts and mitigation strategies that considers the impacts of climate-related droughts, freezing temperatures, and the economic and public health effects of the ongoing global pandemic. 

Ben Hunkler

Ben comes to ORVI from community advocacy work in the Ohio River Valley. He offers communications and design support for report releases, social media content, and the ORVI Insider.