Pgh. Mayor Bill Peduto unveils a plan to help the Ohio Valley transition from fossil fuels

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto. (CP Photo: Jared Wickerham).

By Ryan Deto 

The election is over, but Pittsburgh and the surrounding region is still talking about fracking. Natural-gas drilling was brought up again, even after the votes were counted by moderate Democrats concerned that anti-fracking rhetoric hurt them in their races.

It’s unclear if there is any merit to that, but one thing clearly still on the mind of many Southwestern Pennsylvanians is what exactly to do about the region’s legacy with fossil fuels.

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto believes there is a path forward. Last week, he introduced his “Marshall Plan for Middle America,” which looks to provide a road map for investment in renewable energy through federal funds, private corporations with public guidance from local governments, and input from universities.

It’s sort of Peduto’s response to the Green New Deal, a sweeping federal proposal that would provide large-scale federal investments to build renewable energy plants and upgrades to the nation’s electricity grid as a way to move the U.S. off of dependency on fossil fuels, like natural gas, by 2030.

The Marshall Plan for Middle America (MPMA), which is an homage to the Marshall Plan which helped rebuild Europe after World War II, is similar to the Green New Deal in many ways. But its goals are slightly less ambitious, and slightly more narrowed. Peduto’s plan is for the Appalachia and Ohio Valley region, which encompasses parts of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, and Kentucky.

It also is looking to reduce carbon dioxide emissions across the four states by 50% as of 2030 and to achieve zero emissions across the region by 2050. And while the MPMA also seeks federal investment like the Green New Deal, it is asking for comparatively less because it hopes to fill the gaps through public-private partnerships with energy companies and other investors.

“We have the power and the ability to work through a four-state region, and with a federal structure around it, much like we did for Europe in World War II,” Peduto said at a Nov. 12 press conference. “The money is significantly less than that investment. And it is not just the federal investment, this is public-private partnership.”

Peduto says an investment plan and strategy is necessary for the Ohio Valley region because the area has already been hit by ongoing job losses in manufacturing, energy, and other areas, and with global fossil-fuel demand shrinking, there is little hope to bring those industries back through conventional free-market policies. MPMA calls for a $60 billion investment per year for the four-state region, which is about 3% of the four-state GDP (gross domestic product) during this decade.

This focus, and acknowledgement of not only the legacy of fossil-fuels in the region, but also the current supply of fossil-fuel reserves, power plants, and other facilities in the region, is all throughout the plan. MPMA cited work from the advocacy group Reimagine Appalachia, which campaigns on a plan of public investment into renewable energy and union jobs in the Ohio Valley.

“Relative to coastal areas, many Middle American communities — such as Appalachia and the Ohio River Valley — are still heavily reliant on fossil-fuel energy infrastructure and legacy manufacturing and extractive sectors,” the MPMA road map document reads.

Peduto said the four-state region could be looking at a loss of 100,000 in fossil-fuel jobs by 2030, thanks to shrinking demand for coal and natural gas. West Virginia alone could see 40,000 job losses in that time span. MPMA believes it can easily offset those losses with investment, and create 410,000 jobs each year across the four-state region; 270,00 in direct and indirect energy jobs, as well as 140,000 induced jobs in other fields thanks to the potential economic boost.

The mayor of Morgantown, W.V. recently endorsed the plan.

Peduto is offering many specific options on how governments, private industries, and labor unions can participate in the MPMA. Instead of the Pennsylvania state legislature providing tax breaks to petrochemical companies (something they recently approved), Peduto says state officials should provide tax breaks to renewable energy companies. Labor unions and local governments can invest pension funds in green energy companies.

He also is addressing the Ohio Valley region’s abundance of natural gas.

Peduto said that fracking companies over drilled, which has led to a supply glut where companies are looking for alternative uses for natural gas outside of just heating homes and power plants. Many natural-gas and fossil-fuel companies believe that cracker plants are the way forward, but Peduto is opposed to petrochemical facilities like cracker plants over environmental and sustainability concerns. He says cracker plants, which produce plastic, will not be sustainable because of shrinking global plastic demands.

Instead, Peduto is advocating for more facilities to create direct energy to heat buildings. Direct energy is when energy generation is created onsite instead of at a power plant miles away, like at the “cloud factory” at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh Main Branch in Oakland.

Peduto said that while natural gas has a hold on Pittsburgh and the Ohio Valley, that doesn’t mean the only uses for natural gas are in power plants and cracker plants. Instead, facilities can use gas for direct energy, which is more efficient than getting power from plants. Peduto says that later on, those direct energy facilities can be converted to use cleaner things like hydrogen.

Building many direct energy facilities can provide many union jobs, to those concerned about declining fracking jobs.

Peduto said he wants MPMA to help avoid what happened to the Pittsburgh region when the steel industry collapsed. After the 1980s, there was no real, large-scale plan to help bring jobs back to the area.

Some efforts, such as career retraining, were largely derided. After 30 years, Pittsburgh has been able to rebuild itself, and now has large and growing industries in medicine and tech. But those are largely contained to Allegheny County.

Peduto said bolder investment and better targeted strategies are necessary so that the entire Ohio Valley and Appalachia region can follow in Pittsburgh’s success.

“When we lost our industry, and we got down to our knees,” Peduto said, referring to the steel industry collapse. “We must not make the same mistake twice. … “Despite Pittsburgh’s recent success, that took 30 years. I don’t want to see the rest of the area go through that. If we don’t see a proactive investment, we will see that collapse.”

Ryan Deto is a reporter for Pittsburgh City Paper, where this story first appeared.