U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm earlier this year praised what she terms “the Pittsburgh playbook” for diversifying an economy. She wants to use it elsewhere to transform communities that rely on traditional fuels for their economic vitality.
It’s an admirable vision, but to make it work everywhere, the Pittsburgh model needs to be understood as one that respects the “old” and the “new” as equal partners in creating a cleaner and more prosperous future. Pittsburgh is a city of builders, and it’s showing how to build a 21st-century economy without sacrificing one for the other.
That’s why our vision includes maintaining affordable energy in Western Pennsylvania. That includes innovations like environmentally sustainable, economically responsible cogeneration plants and microgrids, as well as natural gas development.
Allegheny County made history when Pittsburgh International Airport became the world’s first to be powered by a microgrid, which shows how solar and natural gas can work together to provide reliable and affordable power. At the same time, natural gas produced on the airport’s land helped save the airport from default so that it can now embark on a $1.1 billion renovation.
Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, a Democrat, was the force behind these solutions — but regardless of which party you belong to, who could disagree with a project that creates jobs and revenue, while cleaning up our environment and demonstrating Pittsburgh’s knack for innovation?
At the same time, the Pittsburgh model is threatened by single-issue activists, politicians, foundations, and nonprofits that want to make their ideology the law of the land.
We’re concerned that the Biden administration is tackling energy with something like that radical approach. Early moves to block the Keystone XL pipeline and to impose federal leasing restrictions won cheers from environmental activists who tried to stop natural gas and the Shell ethylene cracker plant in Beaver County — one of the largest construction projects in the U.S.
That kind of thinking costs jobs. It also fails to acknowledge and appreciate how emission reduction and energy development can (and do) go hand in hand. While we respect the administration’s promise of new jobs in clean energy, those jobs have yet to materialize, the jury is out on how much they will pay workers, and career paths are unclear.
We differentiate between short-term plans, say, to plug abandoned wells and the lifelong job prospects of producing products that sustain our communities. One ticks the box on a political promise; the other is the certainty on which families and small businesses rely — and thrive.
The Pittsburgh model can help fill this gap.
It draws on lessons learned from our state’s history of abundant natural resources and industrial evolution. Pennsylvania natural gas helped reduce emissions in the state as much as 92% since 1990, per a 2019 analysis. Government restrictions didn’t produce that outcome; industry, market forces, and smart policies did.
“Practical” and “reasonable” are the watchwords to follow as our economy, energy usage, and industries evolve. By moving forward with an eye on both our past and future, we can avoid unnecessary job losses and economic disruptions.
Our Pittsburgh Works Together coalition of organized labor, business executives, and economic and workforce-development leaders recognizes the things that make us strong and that provide opportunities for everyone. Natural gas is part of that, as are the petrochemicals, steelmaking, and other manufacturing in our industrial base.
These industries employ tens of thousands of people in the region and generate substantial economic benefits. Even though the federal oil and gas leasing restrictions don’t directly affect our area, they set a tone for laws that limit our ability to flourish.
We can’t let our progress be stifled. The Pittsburgh region has shown that it can move toward a healthier economy and a healthier environment.
No one should be put at risk of joblessness on the mere promise of new jobs — especially now, with the post-COVID-19 economic recovery still gathering momentum.
Our Pittsburgh model demonstrates a better path, one that enjoys broad bipartisan support and can be embraced without reservation. We’re counting on the Biden administration to embrace it, too.
Jeff Nobers is the executive director of the Builders Guild of Western Pennsylvania. He first wrote this piece for RealClearEnergy.