A 2017 study from Pittsburgh-based pro-business group McKinsey & Co. says Pennsylvania could see more than 100,000 additional jobs thanks to natural gas. The cracker plant in Beaver County is said to produce 6,000 temporary construction jobs and 600 permanent jobs. Cracker plants create plastics derived from natural gas, and proponents say plants can help create manufacturing companies across the region that will use the plastic from the cracker plant to create products.
Both the natural-gas industry and the cracker plant are backed by some of the state’s most powerful leaders. Not only do most Republican politicians in the area support more drilling, but Democrats like Fitzgerald and Gov. Tom Wolf have offered support to the cracker plant. Newly elected U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Mount Lebanon) represents heavily drilled areas in Washington and Westmoreland counties, and he campaigned on a pro-fracking stance.
“Natural gas extraction is creating and supporting a lot of good, middle-class jobs in our region, and I want more of those jobs for our people,” wrote Lamb on his campaign website.
Wright also noted that natural gas as an energy source is cleaner than coal, and its emergence has helped improve Pittsburgh’s air quality. “And as more clean-burning natural gas is safely produced and used locally to generate affordable electricity for consumers, our air quality is sharply improving, creating important public health benefits for every Pennsylvanian,” she wrote.
But Jacquelyn Bonomo, CEO of clean-energy advocacy organization PennFuture, refutes many of these claims. She says the Pennsylvania Department of Labor projects flat job growth for natural-gas employment through 2024 (which doesn’t include jobs from gas-related fields like manufacturing). Bonomo says natural gas has too many boom and bust cycles to offer steady growth in employment.
“To communities being sold a line about job growth, they are being misled,” says Bonomo.
And some of the job growth that is generated from natural gas may be offset by job losses in other sectors.
First Energy, a company that operates power plants in the region, recently declared bankruptcy. U.S. Rep. Keith Rothfus (R-Sewickley) told the Beaver County Times on April 6 that the county is in danger of losing between 1,300 and 1,400 jobs if First Energy’s coal-fired and nuclear power plants shut down. The natural-gas trade publication Natural Gas Intelligence wrote on April 2 that an abundance of natural gas in the region was cited as a reason for First Energy filing for bankruptcy.
Bonomo also notes while political leaders may support natural gas, some community groups do not. In January, a group of more than 140 Presbyterian churches in Allegheny County called for halting the cracker plant’s construction. The churches were concerned with the plant’s impact on pollution levels. Bonomo says community members across Pennsylvania have recently held protests and criticized the potential environmental impacts of the Mariner East 2 pipeline, which when completed will move natural gas from Western Pennsylvania to Eastern Pennsylvania and beyond.
A recent study from the Environmental Defense Fund says fracking wells in Pennsylvania are producing five times as much methane as previously reported by state officials. Methane warms the planet 86 times as much as carbon dioxide, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Bonomo wants Pittsburgh leaders to start putting their weight behind the production of wind energy. She says ridge tops in Pennsylvania provide plenty of room to build productive wind farms. (For example, Somerset County, in the Laurel Highlands, is already home to nine wind farms, and two more are proposed in the area.)
She says Pennsylvanians deserve good-paying jobs, and no one should “disparage people for wanting good jobs.” But she says the renewable energy sector in the state is already employing 70,000 Pennsylvanians, and Bonomo feels that number can grow.
Bonomo says Pittsburgh is forging ahead in two divergent directions. Natural-gas and petrochemical industries have backing from politicians and business leaders alike, while also attracting tech companies like Amazon. However, Bonomo notes Amazon’s commitment to achieving a 100 percent renewable-energy global infrastructure footprint. She says Pittsburgh-area leaders shouldn’t be supporting natural gas and thinks they should shift their support to renewable energy.
“I think it is the path of least resistance,” she says of supporting natural-gas. “But particularly in Western Pennsylvania, where we have the finest universities that could be working on resources for renewables. Just think of the power that could be released with progressive leadership, if only the political will was there.”
Bonomo says if Pittsburgh really wants to emerge as a tech center, local leaders need to acknowledge that supporting natural gas and petrochemicals is antithetical in attracting companies like Amazon.
“How are we going to bring [Amazon] into Western PA, where the trajectory is defined by natural gas?” says Bonomo. “That is where there is a disconnect.”