Cheers and jeers: Environmentalists clash with Gov. Shapiro at hydrogen energy meeting in Northeast Philly

The Delaware Riverkeeper Network and other groups objected to the fact that the public meeting was being held at the steamfitters union hall.

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Maya van Rossum yelling from the crowd at the meeting

Maya van Rossum, with the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, interrupts Gov. Josh Shapiro's speech promoting a regional hydrogen hub at the Steamfitters Local 420 union hall in Northeast Philadelphia March 11, 2024. (Susan Phillips/WHYY)

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Cheers and jeers erupted during a speech by Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro Monday, who was in town to promote hydrogen energy at a public meeting at the Steamfitters Local 420 union hall in Northeast Philadelphia.

Shapiro began by praising Steamfitters’ president, Jim Snell, for “creating clean energy opportunities.” Snell is part of a group that includes business leaders and academics behind the Mid-Atlantic Clean Hydrogen, or MACH2 hydrogen hub plan, one of seven proposals the Department of Energy chose to curb climate emissions from heavy industry such as steelmaking, cement and fertilizer. Hydrogen only emits water vapor when burned as fuel, but the bulk of it is currently produced using fossil fuels.

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“We are all in when it comes to the hydrogen hubs here in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” said Shapiro, which generated applause from the crowd of more than 100 union members and fossil fuel executives.

But moments into Shapiro’s speech, the Delaware Riverkeeper Network’s Maya van Rossum stood and began shouting. Van Rossum objected to the public meeting’s location at the union hall in the far Northeast, saying it was difficult to reach. The Riverkeeper and a list of other environmental groups sent a letter to the MACH2 organizers last month asking to change the venue to a place that would be more accessible to the public and more welcoming to those who opposed the plan.

“If they are going to try to show the Department of Energy that MACH2 is engaging the public they’re going in the opposite direction,” said the Riverkeeper’s Tracy Carluccio ahead of the meeting. “We need information first. We need to be informed to ask an informed question. Where are these components? Are there new pipelines, a compressor station, hydrogen storage?”

During the meeting, van Rossum said public meetings should be held in a neutral location, like a library, rather than a union headquarters that stands to gain federal funds.

As security began to surround Van Rossum, she continued, “I’d like the Governor to please answer the question.” Union members shouted back to “sit down” and “shut up.” Soon, both environmentalists and union members were shouting “shame, shame, shame.”

“Yelling and shouting accomplishes nothing,” said Shapiro, who went on to finish his speech during the commotion and then quickly left.

Josh Shapiro speaking at a podium
Gov. Josh Shapiro pauses after environmentalist Maya van Rossum disrupts his speech Monday at the Steamfitters Local 420 union hall in Northeast Philadelphia. (Susan Phillips/WHYY)

The purpose of the meeting was to provide more details about what a hydrogen hub for the region would look like. The proposal is backed by $750 million in federal funds from the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which includes funds for what the Department of Energy says needs to be meaningful public engagement, acknowledging the legacy of polluting industries on poor and marginalized communities, with the goal of not repeating similar destruction. Several speakers emphasized that the process is in its early stages. Currently, the group is still in negotiations with the Department of Energy over the governing structure of the MACH2.

If the DOE puts its final stamp of approval on the project, the first phase would include 18 months of community engagement, said MACH2 Chair Colin O’Mara, who is also the CEO of the National Wildlife Federation. The hydrogen hubs must comply with the Biden Administration’s Justice40 Initiative, which requires 40% of the funds to benefit disadvantaged communities.

But, the uproar points to the distrust that exists between community members forced to live with pollution and a history of poorly regulated industries. One of the most recent being the Mariner East natural gas liquids pipeline construction, which was approved without widespread public notification, and within a regulatory framework that from some residents’ point of view, did little to protect their safety and properties.

The project, completed in 2022 by the Texas-based Energy Transfer, took five years to complete, racked up more than 120 notices of violations, and garnered more than $20 million in fines and assessments. The state Public Utility Commission temporarily shut down the operation of the Mariner East 1 pipeline in 2018 over safety concerns. The Attorney General’s Office, led at the time by current Gov. Josh Shapiro, filed 48 criminal charges against the company. Construction mishaps and resulting safety issues regarding the pipeline led the PUC to revise existing rules for the state’s hazardous liquid pipelines. Chester County suffered some of the most damage with dangerous sinkholes, drilling mud spills, and drinking water contamination. Some of those residents directly impacted oppose the hydrogen hub, especially any new pipeline construction, and attended Monday’s meeting to protest.

Along with a distrust of the public process, opponents also question the viability of green hydrogen, which would be produced using solar and wind energy. “We don’t trust this will actually be green hydrogen,” said Tammy Murphy, with Physicians for a Social Responsibility, who attended the meeting.

MACH2 chair Colin O’Mara, who once ran Delaware’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, said he’s not in favor of any new pipelines, but rather “re-sleeving” existing pipelines that connect the region’s legacy refineries with material that would ensure hydrogen, which is highly explosive, would not leak. O’Mara also said the group is committed to holding more meetings at other venues.

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Speaking after the meeting, Jim Snell said that after the closure of the PES refinery in 2019 due to an explosion, “manufacturing in this area just shut down.” He sees the hydrogen hub as a way to expand the union’s apprenticeship program, and open the door for many to reach the middle class. “This is about jobs,” he said. “Everyone has different opinions, we need to sit down at the table and roll up our sleeves … Shapiro didn’t deserve that.”

Bob Casey and Jim Snell greeting each other
Sen. Bob Casey greets Steamfitters Local 420 president Jim Snell after speaking at a public meeting on the MACH2 hydrogen hub at the union’s headquarters in Northeast Philadelphia. (Susan Phillips/WHYY)

In a statement emailed later to WHYY, Shapiro’s spokesman Manuel Bonder criticized the protesters for ignoring the climate benefits of clean hydrogen production.

“Unfortunately, those who are more focused on making noise than making progress didn’t listen long enough to hear that — and in the process, showed incredible disrespect to their fellow Pennsylvanians who were there to learn and engage,” wrote Bonder.

Shapiro says a hydrogen hub would create 20,000 jobs and cut tens of millions of tons of climate warming emissions each year.

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