In Pennsylvania, Home to the Nation’s First Oil Well, Environmental Activists Stage a ‘People’s Filibuster’ at the Bustling State Capitol

HARRISBURG, Pa.—In the East Wing of the ornate Pennsylvania State Capitol, Karen Feridun stood at a simple podium and read an essay aloud as part of what she and other environmental activists were calling a “People’s Filibuster.”

“We are here to remind you that you serve us, not the fossil fuel industry,” Feridun read into the microphone, speaking to the state’s newly elected progressive governor, Josh Shapiro, a Democrat, and members of the legislature, which was in session.

The cavernous space was buzzing on Tuesday morning with the news that Joanna McClinton, a Democrat from Philadelphia, had just been elected as the House’s first female speaker. McClinton will lead a state House of Representatives, which is controlled by Democrats for the first time in 12 years.

Feridun, an organizer of the event and a co-founder of the Better Path Coalition, began by reading the essay, written by Victoria Switzer, who lives in Dimock, a Pennsylvania town that has been plagued for years by water pollution caused by fracking. 

Switzer’s essay opened with an indictment of the powerful oil and gas industry. “Pennsylvania’s intrinsic value has been entrusted to a historically reckless and self-serving industry that has one purpose: to enrich its shareholders and its CEOs,” Feridun read. “This is not a new path for Pennsylvania. She has the distinction of being blessed with an abundance of natural resources.” 

The East Wing was loud with the echoes of other voices; the nearby cafe was crowded for lunchtime. People in suits strolled by, staring at their phones. 

The “People’s Filibuster” was part of a plan to share Pennsylvanians’ testimony about climate change and the environment at the Capitol. Called “Bearing Witness 2023,” the plan included a petition that had been sent to Gov. Shapiro demanding that he reinstate a pre-existing fracking ban in Dimock. 

As Feridun spoke, the red numbers on the Climate Clock, installed by activists in the Capitol in June 2022 during the Pennsylvania Climate Convergence, flashed behind her, counting down the 6 years, 143 days, 21 hours and 54 minutes remaining to prevent global warming from exceeding 1.5 degrees Celsius, a goal established by the Paris climate accord in 2015. The Clock is based on data from the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change

The Climate Clock installed by activists in the Pennsylvania State Capitol. Credit: Kiley Bense

“Can you, Governor Shapiro and the elected body of senators and representatives here in Harrisburg, uphold your oath to Penn’s Woods and its inhabitants?” Feridun asked, amplifying Switzer’s words. “Elected officials of my beloved Penn’s Woods, take a walk with me, follow our Burdick Creek from its source as it passes through farms and fields and yards to its entrance into the next stream. Maybe you just need to get out of the city, out from under that dome and breathe.” 

Switzer was referring to the Capitol’s enormous Rotunda, modeled after St. Peter’s Basilica and built in 1906.

After the reading, some of the group split off to deliver copies of a book created for the event, titled “Worth Protecting,” to as many elected officials as they could find. The book includes pictures of trees, streams, flowers, pets and children taken by Pennsylvanians. 

“We offer these photos as a way of honoring those many things across our Commonwealth that we consider Worth Protecting,” it reads. 

The project is an entreaty to state lawmakers to recognize both the environmental and public health damage caused by the oil and gas industry, as well as Pennsylvania’s complicity in the climate crisis. “The power to protect is in their pen. And we are running out of time,” said Karen Elias, who edited the book.

The group headed to the Governor’s Office, an imposing room with leather chairs, thick carpets, huge chandeliers and a large grandfather clock, where they were informed that the governor and chief of staff were both busy. They made their way down the Capitol’s long hallways and marble staircases, opening every unlocked door to present whoever was available in that lawmaker’s office with a copy of the book. 

Some of the offices were piled with moving boxes; Mike Rozzi’s resignation and McClinton’s election as House speaker had necessitated shuffling within the Democratic leadership, and office assignments would be shuffling, too. Others were decorated for St. Patrick’s Day. Old-fashioned clocks ticked on the walls, gold pendulums swinging. The group were greeted with varying levels of enthusiasm, from polite, tight-lipped dismissal to emphatic, smiling gratitude. 

They walked beneath the grand Rotunda, where Edwin Austin Abbey’s murals, hung in 1909, adorn the soaring ceiling. There are four painted lunettes in the Rotunda. Three of them are dedicated to celebrating Pennsylvania’s history of resource extraction and industry, including one called “The Spirit of Light,” which depicts an oil field at sunset. Ethereal female figures, dressed in white, float in front of a row of derricks. They hold flames in their hands, stretching toward the sky.  

Pennsylvania was a fossil fuel pioneer. It was here that the first American oil well was drilled in 1859. Coal was mined starting in the 18th century; in the 19th century, Pennsylvania’s coal was “fueling the industrial growth of the entire country.” 

In the 2000s, with the discovery of vast natural gas deposits in the Marcellus Shale, fracking wells were drilled across swaths of northern and western Pennsylvania. Dimock, Victoria Switzer’s home, became a pioneer in another way: as an example to the world of the dangers of fracking to human health. In the Capitol, the placement of the murals seems to suggest the oil and gas industry is more than a way of life; it’s a religion.

Exiting an elevator, the group of activists passed by the new Speaker, surrounded by a knot of security and aides. The activists waved to her, shouting out congratulations as the elevator doors slid closed. Like the Rotunda, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, where McClinton will preside, is lavishly decorated. Fourteen round stained glass windows, from 1906, line the chamber. 

For these jewel-like windows, the artist chose subjects that were “symbolic of Pennsylvania’s heritage,” including steel, iron, electricity, steam engineering, petroleum and natural gas. The natural gas window glows with a spray of methane, unleashed from underground.

After returning to the East Wing, the activists sat on rows of folding chairs to listen to more readings. Karen Feridun read from “Shalefield Stories,” a collection of testimonies from people whose lives and health were upended or destroyed by exposure to fracking. Several readings from the event mentioned the recent train accident in East Palestine, Ohio. The activists read poetry and a “Climate Declaration” that “withdraws our consent from leaders and institutions worldwide that have failed to stop climate destruction.” 

Tamela Trussell, who founded an organization called Move Past Plastic, read an essay she composed about the Conodoguinet Creek inspired by the photograph she submitted for the “Worth Protecting” book, which shows her paddleboarding with her dogs. The Climate Clock now read 6 years, 143 days, 20 hours and 31 minutes. 

Although Pennsylvania’s romance with fossil fuels dates back nearly to its founding as a colonial settlement, today’s activists are the inheritors of an environmentalist and conservationist tradition that is nearly as long. 

Pennsylvania was the home of Rachel Carson and Gifford Pinchot, and the state’s founding father, William Penn, passed an early conservation law in 1682, mandating that landowners protect at least one acre for every five that were developed. Beneath the activists’ feet in the Capitol were tile mosiacs of squirrels, elk and raccoons. An appreciation for the natural world—and the instinct to preserve it—is part of Pennsylvania’s history too. 

In some ways, Pennsylvania is a bellwether for the climate crisis. If the oil and gas industry continues to expand here and in places like it—building plastics plants, laying pipeline, drilling fracking wells—there will be little hope of meeting the goals outlined in the Paris Accords. 

Keep Environmental Journalism Alive

ICN provides award-winning climate coverage free of charge and advertising. We rely on donations from readers like you to keep going.

Donate Now

The Environmental Defense Fund estimates that oil and gas companies in Pennsylvania emit 1.1 million tons of methane annually. The Pennsylvania Department of Health has counted 350,000 conventional wells and 13,000 fracking wells in the state. Investment in facilities that produce single-use plastics (and stunning amounts of greenhouse gas emissions) shows little sign of abating. Pennsylvania will either become an enduring symbol of governmental failure to address climate change—or an example to the world of a new future without fossil fuels. 

In the 17th century, William Penn imagined Pennsylvania as a shining example to the world. His vision is enshrined on the Rotunda that lawmakers walk beneath every day:

There may be room there for such a holy experiment. 

For the nations want a precedent. 

And my God will make it the seed of a nation.

That an example may be set up to the nations.

That we may do the thing that is truly wise and just.

For her part, Feridun was not deterred by the lack of notice from most lawmakers and media on Tuesday, and she was heartened by the handful of positive signs they had encountered: at least one politician had thanked them for the “Worth Protecting” book. “I’m hoping that they’re starting to hear us. They’re getting the message that there are things worth protecting,” she said. “But this is us just standing here, being present and saying these things, even if there’s nobody listening.” 

She felt that the event had fulfilled their intentions for it and said that the group planned to make the “People’s Fillibuster” a monthly occurrence. Feridun compared their mission to Greta Thunberg’s early, solitary protest outside the Swedish parliament in 2018. No matter how long it took to have an impact, theirs was an effort worth continuing, because the stakes were so high. “This isn’t some trifling matter,” she said. “This is survival. This is the planet’s life.” Behind her, the Clock was still ticking. 

Read more