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PGH Bridge Collapse: There’s no time to delay on new infrastructure jobs | Opinion

A new year offers offers many new opportunities to coal communities to help cushion any economic impact from coal’s market-driven decline

An Allegheny County Port Authority bus involved in the collapse of the Frick Park Bridge on Friday, January, 28, 2022. (Pittsburgh City Paper photo).

By  Joseph Cullen

Last week’s collapse of the Forbes Avenue bridge in Pittsburgh’s Frick Park brought new urgency to the task of implementing construction projects and repairs to infrastructure neglected since the 1970’s. The good news is that Pennsylvania is poised to welcome thousands of new blue-collar jobs in 2022, not just for bridges and roads, but also to address other infrastructure needs, especially in coal communities.

If state and local leaders can put politics aside, the Commonwealth will reap abundant rewards: not just a bounty of good local construction jobs, but restored mine lands, safely capped oil and gas wells, lower household energy bills, and dramatically improved internet access.

To better understand the opportunities before us, it’s useful to first look back. In 2021, the energy market transition away from coal accelerated. Five of Pennsylvania’s six coal-fired power plants announced plans to shut down or stop burning coal in the future.

A National Bureau of Economic Research study suggested that the energy market’s rapid pivot away from coal power plants in 2021 may be due to fundamental economics. Coal-generated electricity is too expensive. The study found that the all-in cost of generating electricity from coal is more than double the cost of solar and wind, and nearly double the cost of natural gas.

Labor markets reflected this shift away from more expensive coal power. During the last year of the Trump administration, coal mining employment dropped 11.3% in Pennsylvania and an average of 20.7% across Appalachian states.

But 2022 offers many new opportunities to coal communities to help cushion any economic impact from coal’s market-driven decline, as new federal and private sector investments can produce thousands of blue-collar jobs in hard-hit regions. Pennsylvania is uniquely situated to benefit.

As the collapse in Frick Park suggests, there is no reason for delay.

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The Ohio River Valley Institute (ORVI) and others recently highlighted a variety of economic development opportunities for Pennsylvania in four key sectors that could boost construction jobs and help coal-dependent communities get back to work: 1) restoring abandoned coal mines; 2) cleaning up abandoned oil and gas wells; 3) retrofitting  homes, businesses, and schools to improve energy efficiency; and 4) building out  broadband in rural communities. Some local officials are already working on economic development plans that will create local jobs in the four areas highlighted in these ORVI Reports:

Restoring abandoned coal mines : Pennsylvania is home to 34% of the nation’s total abandoned mine lands, with more than 40% of estimated cleanup costs. Our anticipated share of mine cleanup funding from the bipartisan Congressional infrastructure bill is a whopping $322 million in 2022 alone, six times as much money as in 2020. Former coal miners, operating engineers, and construction workers can get to work in 2022 on these reclamation projects.

Cleaning up abandoned oil and gas wells: The infrastructure program includes $4.7 billion to remediate aging oil and gas wells, creating new jobs while simultaneously curbing climate-warming methane emissions. Pennsylvania, the birthplace of the modern oil industry, is home to over 200,000 “orphan” and abandoned oil and gas wells will receive a minimum of $330 million. ORVI calculates that this program has the potential to create 3,960 jobs for pipefitters, operating engineers, and construction workers in Pennsylvania annually.

Retrofitting homes, businesses, and schools:  New federal infrastructure spending will invest up to $5 billion in projects to create energy efficiency jobs. ORVI research has demonstrated how targeted funding for energy efficiency investments has fueled a local economy to increase local job and economic growth levels to twice the national rate. Additional investments in energy efficiency, generated by the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), could supplement federal funding, and yield even stronger growth. Both federal and RGGI funds could be leveraged with private investments to create thousands of new construction jobs, delivering homeowners and businesses energy cost savings that are reinvested locally.

Building out broadband in rural communities: Reimagine Appalachia highlighted the critical role that roadband access plays in rural economic development. States are already investing $10 billion from the American Rescue Plan Act in broadband and the federal infrastructure bill is funding $65 billion for broadband deployment and adoption. Broadband investments will create thousands of construction jobs in the short term and help rural small businesses to grow in the long term.
There are challenges ahead. Federal infrastructure project implementation will require the development of local investment strategies and consensus among local officials, business leaders, organized skill labor, and others to maximize long term growth and private sector participation.

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Some local leaders are already tackling these challenges and developing consensus-based investment strategies and identifying specific projects. Federal and state agencies are prepared to engage with local coal communities to identify and implement construction projects in all four of these construction intensive business sectors. Additional proposed RGGI funding for coal community economic revitalization may become available in 2022.

Pennsylvania has been a national leader on energy technology development and economic innovation since the beginning of the industrial era. Our coal community officials, businesses and skilled workforce are in the driver’s seat: they can seize these new investment opportunities to create thousands of local blue-collar jobs in 2022.

Rather than playing a blame game on the state energy market economics, let’s all get to work now on investing in our shared infrastructure to build a more prosperous Pennsylvania.

Joseph Cullen is a Research Fellow at the Ohio River Valley Institute, a progressive think-tank based in Pittsburgh.

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