Appalachian Basin

Agenda-Driven Activists Peddling Misinformation in the Ohio River Valley

An agenda-driven presentation by activists on what they claim are potential impacts of shale development and related industries in the Ohio River Valley received some recent media coverage, despite a laundry list of flaws with the speakers’ claims.

Speakers Matthew Mehalik and Dr. Ned Ketyer are far from unbiased presenters.

Mehalik is the executive director of the Pittsburgh-based Breathe Project and related Breathe Collaborative, which combined received $800,000 from the Heinz Endowments in 2018.

A 2018 Northeastern University study identified Heinz as one of several foundations that have funded a majority of anti-oil and natural gas efforts in recent years, explaining:

“Specific to natural gas fracking, $6.8 million was provided to restrict or ban drilling, $2.1 million to protect drinking water supplies; and $3.9 million for research on health and environmental impacts. To support efforts to ban/restrict fracking, Schmidt ($3.3 million), Hewlett ($1.5 million), Park ($1.1 million), and Heinz ($1 million) were the leading funders. … Park gave primarily to groups working in New York state, and Heinz to groups in Pennsylvania. Relative to protecting drinking water supplies, major funders included Heinz ($1 million) for efforts in Pennsylvania; and Park ($760,000) for work in North Carolina and New York. Major funders of research on fracking’s health and environmental impacts included Heinz ($2.7 million), Park ($780,000), and Schmidt ($390,000). These funds were given to a mix of universities and environmental groups.”

The Breathe Collaborative includes a who’s who of organizations in Pennsylvania and the surrounding region that have actively worked to prevent Appalachian Basin natural gas development such as the Mountain Watershed Association, PennEnvironment, Sierra Club and Food and Water Watch, among others. But that’s not surprising given the Breathe Project’s clear agenda to make “large swaths” of the region “off limits to fracking” and to prevent petrochemical infrastructure like the proposed cracker plants from being located in Appalachia.

Ketyer, a retired Washington County, Pa., pediatrician, is also not without bias as part of the anti-fracking Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project. In 2017, the Mount Pleasant Zoning Board said that Ketyer is “…not a toxicologist, an epidemiologist, or an expert in air modeling, and does not do formal health risk assessments and has not published articles on the health effects of gas development,” despite his attempt to testify on such matters before the board when he admitted to not reading any studies that included air quality sampling in the region. Ultimately, the board did not find his “opinion that emissions from unconventional natural gas development are abundant and pose a threat to humans and human health credible to the extent necessary to consider in this matter.”

Despite this, the two featured prominently in a recent Wheeling Intelligencer article on their presentation. Here are how a few of the duo’s claims stack up to facts:

Claim: There will be “harmful effects” on the local community from a buildout of the petrochemical industry and increased natural gas development.

FACT: The natural gas industry is not negatively impacting public health.

The Appalachian Basin, particularly Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale, has been studied extensively over the past decade. Multiple peer-reviewed studies have found that the industry operating in the tri-state region is not impacting groundwater and that air emissions from infrastructure are at levels that are not harmful to health.

Perhaps more perplexing is the presenters’ claimed costs that health care will rise. There is no indication in the presentation or that EID could find on the Breathe Project’s website of how Mehalik came to these conclusions, and yet the Intelligencer reported:

“For example, Mehalik said experts predict health care costs in Ohio County would increase $1.3 to 3.1 million annually, or $46-94 million over 30 years, as a result of the three plants. He said 30-year costs nationally are projected at $3.6-8.4 billion.”

The experts Mehalik cites, at least according to a recent Yale 360 article, are actually his team at the Breathe Project.

Claim: The industry uses “a piecemeal approach” to avoid regulations.

FACT: The Appalachian Basin’s oil and natural gas industry is highly regulated, as is the related petrochemical industry.

 The oil and natural gas industry, including associated downstream facilities like petrochemical facilities, are strictly regulated. Mehalik and Ketyer’s attempt to paint this industry as using a piecemeal approach has become a common tactic as part of their calls for emissions to be aggregated.

But that’s not how emissions calculations and regulations work. Facilities and well sites are permitted based on their estimated emissions as either minor or major emissions sources and have varying regulations dependent on this designation.

What these “Keep It In the Ground” organizations that Mehalik and Ketyer represent want is for all minor industry emissions sources to be combined and considered one source and thus adhere to the regulations of major emissions sources. But what this argument fails to acknowledge is the already strict regulations that minor facilities fall under and the equally stringent air permitting process for these sites. Such measures even include a requirement for companies to “use more advanced equipment to reduce methane emissions and other air pollutants, control emissions from a broader array of sites and check for leaks more frequently along pipelines and connections,” according to the Associated Press.

Claim: Jobs will be given to out-of-state and temporary workers.


FACT: The shale industry is a major employer in the tri-state region.

The shale industry in West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania employees hundreds of thousands of local workers, and at above average salaries to boot.

While some of the work – pipelines, power plants, cracker plants – like any construction job, is temporary in nature, there is so much activity happening regionally that it is providing steady employment for local labor unions. In Ohio, for instance, as of October 2018 the Ohio Laborers District Council reported it had logged more than 2.6 million hours since January alone.

Ray Hipscher, Pipeline Specialist at OLDC, told EID:

“The difference the industry has made in the lives of working families in Ohio is indescribable. It has provided family-sustaining wages, quality health insurance, and secure pension to Ohio residents during a time they were struggling to even find a job, let alone a good job.”

And those impacts are being similarly realized in West Virginia.

The sheer amount of career options available in the oil and natural gas industry provides the potential for a wide range of opportunities for local residents.

Claim: The region won’t need petrochemicals in the near future.

FACT: Plastics are an important part of our daily lives, and that’s not changing any time soon.

Whether it’s life-saving devices like pacemakers and pill capsules or the computers Ketyer and Mehalik used to prepare and give their presentations, plastics are so much more than just water bottles and straws. And the Appalachian Basin has a unique opportunity to become a hub of providing the building blocks of plastics that will drive greater and much-needed investment in the region.

As a recent Department of Energy report explained:

“Appalachia’s abundant resources coupled with extensive downstream industrial activity may offer a competitive advantage that could enable it to displace marginal producers and help the U.S. gain global market share in the petrochemical industry.”

It is naïve to think that the plastics industry will disappear tomorrow or even five years from now when one considers all that it actually entails:

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