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Left: The Cathedral of Learning at the University of Pittsburgh; Right: Fracking Infrastructure in Washington County Pennsylvania via Flickr In early October 2022, the University of Pittsburgh (Pitt) made the

Left: The Cathedral of Learning at the University of Pittsburgh; Right: Fracking Infrastructure in Washington County Pennsylvania via Flickr

In early October 2022, the University of Pittsburgh (Pitt) made the controversial decision to drop out of a public forum where it was slated to discuss the progress of its ongoing studies on fracking and its impact on public health in Pennsylvania. The University claimed that it did not have new information to share, but community and environmental groups like the Center for Coalfield Justice refuted this claim. These groups claimed that the University’s researchers had been collaborating with them to plan the event and were ready to discuss the long awaited studies and take questions from the community. Pitt’s withdrawal from the meeting led the Pennsylvania Department of Health, the regulatory body best poised to act on findings from these studies, to withdraw from the community event as well. These actions have left many wondering: why would Pitt suddenly withdraw from its planned release of critical information on community health impacts?

The ties between the University of Pittsburgh Board of Trustees and the fracking industry may hold the answer to the inexplicably hasty decision to withdraw from an event that could lead to further public scrutiny on the industry. Many of the trustees that govern the University have deep social and financial ties to the fossil fuel industry, particularly the fracking industry in Western Pennsylvania. Fracking giants like EQT often take advantage of these important relationships to control their public image and stifle opposition. 

For further context, the studies currently being conducted by the Pitt School of Public Health began after several children in Washington County developed a rare form of bone cancer called Ewing sarcoma. According to state cancer records, 31 people had been diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma between 2006 through 2017 in just four counties in southwest Pennsylvania. This represents a 40% increase in cases from the previous decade. This increase coincided with a rapid growth in fracking in the region leading families and activists to demand that the state study the impacts of fracking on the health and safety of residents in the area. 

In late 2019, Governor Wolf and his Department of Public Health agreed to spend $3.9 million on a three year series of studies to investigate the impacts of fracking on public health. A year later, the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Public Health was awarded $2.5 million to study the impacts of the thousands of natural gas wells in Washington, Westmoreland, Fayette, and Greene counties in Western Pennsylvania. According to Pittsburgh’s NPR affiliate, the Pitt studies are “examining the relationship between fracking and diseases like cancer, asthma, and poor birth outcomes.” 

While this step to invest in community health impact research is positive, Pitt’s decision to withdraw from the public meeting should raise some concerns, especially when University leadership has so many ties to the fossil fuel industry. 

One of the most egregious examples is University Trustee and Pitt School of Engineering Trustee, Roberta Luxbacher. She previously served as Vice President of Global Industrial and Wholesale at ExxonMobil Corporation. ExxonMobil’s subsidiary XTO Energy is a leading natural gas producer with over 500,000 acres of land in western and central Pennsylvania. 

Pitt Trustee Erin McDowell currently serves as Vice President and Deputy General Counsel at Range Resources, another leading producer of natural gas with nearly one million acres of land in Pennsylvania. Emeritus Trustee Thomas Usher was the Chairman of the board of Marathon Petroleum Corporation – one of the largest refiners in the US – until 2016. Trustee Jeannine Schoenecker is the former President and Chief Operating Officer and current board member of American Refining Group Inc, one of the country’s oldest oil refineries.

Trustee Peter Varischetti’s brother, Nicholas, is a registered lobbyist for Consol Energy, Peoples Gas, and Rosebud Coal Mining Company, according to state lobbying records. Trustee and lawyer David Frederick represented Shell Oil in a recent court case where the City of Hoboken sued fossil fuel companies for their role in the climate crisis. Trustee and Chair of the Pitt Swanson School of Engineering, Robert O. Agbede, is the Chairman of the Chester Group, an engineering firm that “designs and manufactures micro liquid natural gas systems for use as virtual pipelines to deliver gas to remote locations or as standalones for off the grid power generation or fueling.” He is also the Vice Chairman of the US Chamber of Commerce, serving as the Chairman of the Environment and Energy Committee, alongside representatives of large fossil fuel companies like Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Entergy Louisiana, and Shell.

Emeritus Trustee Frank Mosier was the President of Standard Oil when it was acquired by the British Petroleum Company in 1987. He later became President of BP America and was named an honorary commander of the Civil Division of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II for a lifetime of work that included playing a significant role in building the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System. Finally, the Dietrich Foundation, under the leadership of Pitt Trustee Edward Grefenstette, is the owner of an active gas well in Howland, Ohio, according to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources

While these ties show the broad representation of the oil and gas industry on the University of Pittsburgh Board of Trustees, one company stands out above the rest: Pittsburgh based fracking giant, EQT, and the company’s financiers, Blackrock and PNC Bank.

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The Power of EQT in Western Pennsylvania

EQT is the largest natural gas producer in the United States. The company owns or leases approximately 610,000 net acres in Pennsylvania, much of which is located in Washington and Greene counties, and it operates about 2,700 wells in the state according to FracTracker 2021 data. The corporation uses its vast resources to generate goodwill in Washington and Greene counties where it has led the region’s fracking boom. For example, EQT sponsors the annual Covered Bridge Festival in Washington County. The company donated $220,000 to local fire departments in 2021 and has donated tens of thousands of dollars to local police departments in Washington and Greene counties. Donations like these, and the positive press that EQT receives as a result, help to build EQT’s reputation so that the company can withstand fallout from events like the recent “frack-out” caused by EQT in Greene county that left residents without clean drinking water. 

EQT also provides financial support to well respected local institutions like Pitt that are leaders in public health research. For example, the University of Pittsburgh has received over $210,000 from the EQT Foundation, the charitable arm of EQT, between 2015 and 2019. EQT had a representative on the Pitt Institute of Politics Environmental Policy Committee until 2017. The Institute of Politics is an organization aiming to provide a non-partisan forum for elected officials in the Pittsburgh region to discuss public policy. In 2017, EQT even announced that it was going to sponsor the popular Pitt vs West Virginia University rivalry basketball series. The series is officially referred to as the EQT Backyard Brawl. 

In addition to these financial ties, there are several Pitt Board of Trustees members with ties to EQT: 

Pitt’s Ties to Fracking Financiers: Blackrock and PNC Bank

Blackrock is the world’s largest asset manager and one of the largest financiers of the fossil fuel industry in the world. The firm is a top shareholder in ExxonMobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, and Marathon Petroleum, and is also one of the world’s biggest investors in coal, with around $109 billion invested in the industry. Blackrock is the largest shareholder in EQT, owning approximately 14.5% in company shares – worth about $2 billion – according to the latest proxy filings

Below are University of Pittsburgh Trustees with ties to Blackrock: 

Blackrock’s top shareholder until 2020 was PNC Bank. PNC is headquartered in Pittsburgh and has a major corporate office across the street from EQT’s downtown headquarters. As of June 2022, PNC is the sixth largest commercial bank in the United States by consolidated assets according to the Federal Reserve. 

Despite PNC’s claim that it has long supported the “transition to a low-carbon economy,” the bank still ranks among the top financiers of oil and gas in the world, according to Banking on Climate Chaos, a 2022 Fossil Fuel Financing report. The report shows that between 2016 and 2021, PNC bank financed the oil and gas industry to the tune of $32 billion. In that same time period, PNC financed top fracking and pipeline companies to the tune of $7.9 billion, making it among the top financiers of the fracking industry in the US. 

EQT makes up a significant portion of PNC’s fracking portfolio. According to Banking on Climate Chaos, PNC has financed EQT to the tune of $1.3 billion between 2016 and 2021. Recent SEC filings show that PNC entered into an agreement with EQT in 2019 that provided the company with a $1 billion loan facility. PNC is also the administrative agent and leading lender for EQT according to recently signed multi-billion dollar credit agreements. 

There are several members of the Pitt Board of Trustees that have an affiliation with PNC Bank. Those members include: 

Bipartisan Support for Fossil Fuels on Pitt’s Board 

As a state university, the University of Pittsburgh has several public elected officials that have been appointed by the Governor to serve on the Board of Trustees alongside trustees from the private sector. These elected officials, on both sides of the aisle, also have ties to the fossil fuel industry in the region which spends heavily on local political races. 

Below are the current and former elected officials on the Pitt Board of Trustees that have ties to the fracking industry and other fossil fuel companies: 

Democratic Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, who serves as an Ex Officio Trustee at the University is also a strong supporter of the fracking industry. According to the Conservation Voters of PA and TransparencyUSA data, Fitzgerald has received at least $115,000 from just EQT, Consol Energy, and CNX (including board members and registered lobbyists donations) since 2014. 

Mary Jo White, former Republican State Senator from Western Pennsylvania, is on the Pitt School of Public Health Board of Visitors. Prior to running for office, she served as an attorney and eventual Vice President for Environmental and Governmental Affairs for Quaker State Company, an oil and lubricant company that was later acquired by Shell. During her time in the state senate, White served as the Chair of the Environmental Resources and Energy Committee for twelve years. While in office, many of White’s top donors were from the oil and gas industry. According to FollowTheMoney, White received at least $63,725 from the industry between 2000 and 2008. 

Environmental groups have rightly criticized local political leaders for their failure to study the impacts of fracking before allowing the fracking boom to happen. While the studies conducted by the Pitt School of Public Health may be too late to stymie the impacts of the fracking industry in these counties, they remain critical to the health and wellbeing of families in Pennsylvania.

There is no evidence suggesting that the results of the ongoing public health studies at Pitt have been manipulated by the fossil fuel industry. However, the decision by the university’s leadership to withdraw from the October meeting shows how much power these decision makers have over the public rollout of these studies. The stakes are high for companies like EQT. Research showing that fracking may cause cancer or other health issues could make local elected officials less likely to support future EQT expansion projects, could cause investors or financial backers to withdraw their money, and could even leave the company vulnerable to lawsuits. As the results are finalized and presented to the public, it is important to keep in mind how connections between the fossil fuel industry and academia work to benefit the industry, maintain the status quo, and hamper the release of critical, life-saving studies that might negatively impact the industry. The University of Pittsburgh is not immune to this pressure.