CANONSBURG, PA.—Thirty years ago, Jason Capps was a young man with ambition, but when he looked around this town near Pittsburgh, where he grew up, all he saw were opportunities slipping away. The coal mines where his father worked were dying; the glass, steel, and manufacturing industries were on their last legs.
In 1987, when Capps graduated from high school, the unemployment rate was at a staggering 12 percent.
“My ability to carve out a future here was limited at best, impossible at worst,” he said. “So I left.”
Capps, 51, became a chef and traveled the country honing his skills. But then an unexpected rebirth happened here in Western Pennsylvania with the discovery of the Marcellus Shale, an ancient rock bed that offers an abundant source of natural gas.
Eventually, Capps moved back to his hometown and, in 2006, he founded Bella Sera—a successful event space resembling a grand Tuscan villa—which he still owns and operates.
“There was this amazing trickle effect, this positive economic evolution that I saw happening in a place where nothing ever happened,” he said.
For decades, geologists knew Devonian black shale existed in this region, but few thought it would be a major source of natural gas, mainly because the supply was thought to be too low.
That all changed in 2003 when energy company Range Resources experimented with horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing—a new technique commonly called “fracking”—which flushes large volumes of high-pressure water, sand, and chemicals into the ground, forcing trapped gas to escape into a well.
In 2004, the first commercially viable well was drilled, attracting multiple oil and gas producers and suppliers to the region. The town’s Southpointe industrial park has since grown to include a breathtaking campus of homes, a championship golf course designed by Arthur Hills, and an executive business park where multiple Fortune 500 companies are based.
“In 2008 is when it really started to turn up,” said Jeff Kotula, president of the county Chamber of Commerce. “Over 20,000 people work here every day, thousands also live, golf, or stay at the hotels.”
Like the men and women who built coal and steel and glass in this region 100 years ago, Kotula and Capps have prospered because of the natural resources under their feet. But unlike their forebears, they now worry that the politics of environmental justice will kill their region’s newfound prosperity.
Climate justice activists say fracking contributes to climate change. Two of the most vocal anti-fracking members of Congress, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Bernie Sanders, introduced companion bills last year to end the practice nationwide. Ocasio-Cortez said in her release: “The science is clear: fracking is a leading contributor to our climate emergency. It is destroying our land. It is destroying our water and it is wreaking havoc on our communities’ health.”
In January, newly sworn-in President Joe Biden signed several executive orders that banned or halted fracking on federal lands. With the stroke of a pen, people from Louisiana to South Dakota to New Mexico saw their livelihoods canceled. While he has so far held his powder on the prohibition of fracking on nonfederal lands (and the practice still goes on in Canonsburg), Biden’s statements that the climate crisis will be at the center of his policy-making has locals and business owners worried.
Rodney Wilson, who is vice president of business development at energy company CNX, dismisses critics’ claims on fracking and argues that it has helped the environment because natural gas is a clean-burning fossil fuel that reduces our reliance on coal for electricity.
“The statistics speak pretty clearly. If you look at Pennsylvania, in the past 12 years that natural gas was on the grid,” and grew to comprise more than one-third of the electricity supply, “CO2 intensity has been reduced by 39 percent in the state,” he said.
An American Petroleum Institute study shows the oil and gas industry contributes $34.7 billion to Pennsylvania’s economy, with more than 1,347 businesses spread across the entire state as part of the larger supply chain. Pennsylvania would lose as many as 600,000 jobs if fracking is banned—and the state GDP would take a $261 billion hit, according to a report from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Sitting in his Southpointe office, CNX CEO Nick Deiuliis is dressed more like a dad ready to take his kid to soccer practice rather than a Fortune 500 exec.
Deiuliis, 52, calls what happened here nothing short of a miracle. He is worried that climate justice forces will undo all this success—and hurt not just welders, tradesmen, and pipefitters but also the hospitality industry, school districts, and community centers that have soared because of the region’s increased tax base.
“As exciting as the past 15 years have been for the region, you get very concerned about what the future holds for Canonsburg and for Western Pennsylvania,” said Deiuliis.
“Despite all these wonderful things that we’re doing … decision-makers and elites are basically working night and day to deny you … your future. That is something that frankly should not be taken lightly,” he said.
Deiuliis said he rarely engages in political battles. But he believes he must take a stand before a ban on fracking goes from a quip on the campaign trail to reality.
Deiuliis said he has “an ethical and moral responsibility as a business leader to speak up to defend the employees, to keep their families going with a high quality of life, to help the region that I am from and that we operate within.”
“To not do that, it’s a moral failing,” said Deiuliis. “We cannot allow the hammer to drop here again.”
Salena Zito has held a long, successful career as a national political reporter. Since 1992, she has interviewed every U.S. president and vice president, as well as top leaders in Washington, D.C., including secretaries of state, speakers of the House and U.S. Central Command generals. Her passion, though, is interviewing thousands of people across the country. She reaches the Everyman and Everywoman through the lost art of shoe-leather journalism, having traveled along the back roads of 49 states.