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140 Churches oppose Shell Beaver County cracker plant

An umbrella group for 140 Presbyterian churches in Allegheny County is calling for a halt to the construction of a sprawling petrochemical plant in neighboring Beaver County, saying it would worsen already high levels of pollution and cancer risk in Southwestern Pennsylvania. 

“We are part of a faith tradition that has affirmed our responsibility to care for the earth as our home and care for all people, especially our most vulnerable populations,” says a letter signed by officials of the Pittsburgh Presbytery, representing more than 28,000 members of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in Allegheny County.

“This plant, and subsequent plants that are planned for the Ohio Valley, will be mass producing plastic products that have been linked to the death of animals and the diminishment of fragile natural habitats,” said the letter, approved by presbytery representatives at their December meeting.

At the same meeting, the presbytery also endorsed a proposal that its national denomination pull all of its investments from fossil fuels in response to the “devastating and urgent reality of climate change.” And it’s urging churches to explore using solar or other renewables to power their churches.

The actions come from a presbytery in the hub of one of the nation’s richest sources of natural gas, and in a region where many Presbyterian churches were historically built on the money that donors and members earned through coal, oil or gas.

Shell Chemical Appalachia has already begun constructing a multi-billion dollar cracker plant in Potter Township, just northwest of Allegheny County. The plant will take ethane, a natural gas liquid plentiful in the Appalachian region, and transform it into pellets for plastic manufacturing.

The plant is expected to create up to 6,000 construction jobs and 600 permanent jobs.

But the presbytery says the plant will massively increase the emissions of carbon dioxide and volatile organic compounds while also expanding the demand for a regional infrastructure of fracking wells and pipelines.

“We can’t ignore environmental issues any longer, especially in our region, where air quality is one of the worst in the nation and we have a fossil-fuel industry looking to take advantage of the poverty of our area and the need for jobs,” said the Rev. John Creasy, associate pastor of the Open Door Church in Highland Park and a member of the presbytery’s peacemaking committee, which proposed the measure.

“We’re trying to do this sensitively and help our region develop a vision for clean-energy jobs, and jobs that will last into the future,” he said.

Shell spokesman Michael Marr said: “We are disappointed this group of church representatives registered opposition without first meeting with Shell to understand the environmental controls we have put in place during design, construction and operations.”

He noted that the plant has received approval from the state Department of Environmental Protection, and will have “the best available environmental controls.”

He added that “we have been heartened by the tremendous support our site has received from community members, business leaders and federal, state and local elected officials of both political parties.”

The Rev. Sheldon Sorge, general minister for the presbytery, said presbytery representatives approved the measure decisively in a standing vote at their meeting. Presbytery representatives include ordained ministers and elders from the congregations.

Opponents of the measure included the Rev. Ted Martin, senior pastor of Hampton Presbyterian Church.

“We use plastic in our lives every day,” he said. “Whether it’s made here or made in China, it’s going to be made.”

He said individuals should try to reduce their use of plastics and pressure companies to produce more environmentally sustainable products and energy sources.

But “the fracking is happening” throughout the region, he said. The natural-gas byproducts will either be shipped elsewhere for processing or could remain here and provide “jobs that could have a ripple effect on the economy.”

He said he’s confident in the strength of environmental regulations governing the plant.

The topic of the cracker plant has not arisen in deliberations of the Beaver-Butler Presbytery, where it will be located, according to the Rev. Alan Adams, its executive presbyter.

When a related issue arose several years ago — whether churches should sign leases for natural-gas extraction from under their property — the presbytery created a manual and required congregational leaders to study it before signing anything, he said.

“In our presbytery there’s a lot of diversity of opinion in regard to that,” he said.

Fossil fuel investments

Separately in December, the Pittsburgh Presbytery joined a dozen other presbyteries in endorsing a proposal from the Hudson River Presbytery in New York. It would require the national denomination’s foundation and pension fund to pull investments from the fossil fuel industry and to invest instead in renewable energy.

The measure will go before the Presbyterians’ national General Assembly in June. Proponents compare it to the denomination’s past divestment from companies involved in tobacco, alcohol, gambling and military contracting.

The measure is not a call to “quit using fossil-fuel products,” Rev. Sorge said. “We couldn’t well do that and live in this world.”

Also, he said, “We don’t mean to impugn the companies that are involved in fossil-fuel production.” But “it’s an instrument for getting us to take seriously the need to look for alternative, renewable energy resources.”

Reached for comment on the proposal, Erica Clayton Wright of the Marcellus Shale Coalition said in a statement: “Natural gas is improving our environment, providing economic and public health benefits as well as jobs across our region and keeping families safe and warm during these dangerously cold periods. We’re proud of the hard work that our local workforce does each day to safely provide the affordable energy that’s improving and lifting up countless lives.”

According to the environmental group 350.org, more than 800 educational, philanthropic and other institutions worldwide have divested from fossil fuels, including liberal religious denominations such as the Episcopal Church and United Church of Christ.

The Presbyterians’ General Assembly in 2016 directed its office for faith-based investing and corporate engagement to raise issues of climate change with companies in which it holds stock, according to office director Rob Fohr.

Since then, the denomination has joined in shareholder resolutions that, for example, contributed to ExxonMobil urging (unsuccessfully) that President Trump keep the United States in the Paris climate accord; Phillips 66 issuing a human-rights report; and Marathon and Valero agreeing to issue sustainability reports.

The Presbyterians’ Board of Pensions hold $145 million in stock in companies listed on an index of top carbon producers, less than 2 percent of the board’s portfolio, while the Presbyterian Foundation holds $21 million, or about 3 percent of portfolio, Mr. Fohr said.

These amount to a fraction of the market capitalization of energy corporations, many in the tens or hundreds of billions of dollars, so divestment would have more of a symbolic than a financial impact.

Peter Smith: [email protected] or 412-263-1416; Twitter @PG_PeterSmith.

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