Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto pulled up a YouTube video in his office on Wednesday that he thought represented his current predicament.
"It’s the ‘dancing guy.' Have you seen it?” he said.
In the video, a shirtless man in shorts starts to flail his arms and legs in a grass field to a thumping beat. The dancing man is the only one in the crowd dancing. "A leader needs the guts to stand alone and look ridiculous,” a narrator says.
This felt true to Peduto: A week before, he spoke out against bringing additional petrochemical companies to Western Pennsylvania — an announcement that surprised environmentalists, business heads, labor leaders and politicians alike. While environmentalists largely praised him, Peduto said he’s never been more shunned by the business community.
"I have every corporate leader in this town upset at me,” he told PublicSource on Nov. 4.
The Allegheny Conference on Community Development publicly rebuked Peduto’s stance but, he said, some individual members called him to express support. “Atta-boy,” he said they told him privately. But each added, “‘You realize I can’t say anything [publicly],’” Peduto said. “And I get that often on a lot of issues but never as much as this past week.”
Even though he didn’t realize his remarks would spark such an intense reaction, Peduto is adamant that he did the right thing and has begun to put together a plan for how to move forward.
He has been meeting with leaders who were upset by his stance and is hoping to work with them to convene a forum where advocates for the petrochemical industry can sit down with other stakeholders in the city and region.
But, he said, he can no longer be a neutral convener of a dialogue about the future of petrochemicals. With his statement, he made his position known.
He said he thinks the long-term interests of the 55 square miles of city that he represents are diverging from the perceived short-term interests of the surrounding areas. And it was time to draw a line and force the region into a difficult conversation about the trade-offs involved.
“There was no meeting that occurred that shifted our economic future away from the growing eds and meds to cracker plants,” he said. "But that's what happened."
A shocking announcement
Peduto was running late for his speech on Oct. 30 at the Climate Action Summit at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center Downtown. He had just celebrated his birthday and his 91-year-old mother had called to talk, he told the crowd when he finally took the stage.
Because he was late to the speech, Peduto had some time to think backstage. He was supposed to speak first but instead he listened to David Wallace-Wells, a journalist who wrote “The Uninhabitable Earth,” a book about the dangers of climate change. Wallace-Wells said the most important change needed to address climate change was political.
Peduto has told the story of Pittsburgh as the industrial Rust Belt city that has been reborn into a modern economy over and over again. As he waited to speak at the summit, he said he was thinking about the recent news that Exxon Mobil was considering building a second cracker plant is Southwestern Pennsylvania. He began to think about what would happen to the region if, in addition to the cracker plant being built in Beaver County by Shell, there were several more built in Ohio and West Virginia and the rest of Western Pennsylvania.
“What that effect will be is completely eliminating and losing that story of Pittsburgh's rebirth into a 21st-century city,” he said.
Peduto doesn’t prepare speeches, he said, he just goes up and speaks. "I didn't walk into that meeting saying, ‘Today is the day I'm going to announce,'” he said.
If he had planned it out ahead of time, he said, he would’ve reached out to the Allegheny Conference, the Chamber of Commerce, local labor leaders and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, to give them a heads-up. That’s all of the people who would have needed to know without telling so many people that the news would’ve leaked and he would’ve had to field 30 or 40 calls trying to “talk me off the edge.”
After more than 20 years of working on environmental issues in Pittsburgh, he didn’t think what he said would surprise the environmental community. But it did.
“Let me be the first politician to say publicly, I oppose any additional petrochemical companies coming to Western Pennsylvania,” he told the crowd to great applause.
Two views of a region
Peduto’s statement was criticized almost immediately by all those parties who he said he would’ve given advance notice had he planned the announcement and then some.
Fitzgerald — with whom Peduto said he has shared one of the closest and longest political relationships the city and county have ever seen — heard about Peduto’s statement on Twitter.
The next day he called into a radio show on KDKA. "I don’t know where it came from,” Fitzgerald said. "I guess we have people out there and other groups that were part of yesterday that want to see things shut down.”
Peduto, for his part, tried to make clear that he wasn’t trying to shut the Shell cracker plant down because it didn’t seem realistic. He was saying he didn’t want any additional cracker plants. But Fitzgerald told PublicSource that even saying “no more” to an entire industry, he considers “an extreme position."
Fitzgerald said he had called Peduto before his radio appearance but did not hear back. There were rumors that Peduto’s statement had created a schism.
“It's so much like high school,” Peduto said. “Did you hear that Rich and Bill are breaking up? It's the most ridiculous gossipy, rumory thing with grown people that I can imagine."
Peduto and Fitzgerald finally met last Monday, before Election Day. They talked about how to move forward and hold a forum where there could be open discussion of how a regional buildout of the petrochemical industry would impact Pittsburgh.
The mayor said they had differed on other issues in the past including as recently as the tax referendum to raise additional money for city parks, which was narrowly passed by city voters last week. But their disagreement over the future of the petrochemical industry in Western Pennsylvania is their biggest public disagreement to date.
The disagreement threatens to pit the local extraction industries against the service and tech industries; the city of Pittsburgh against the areas surrounding it; environmentalists who want action on climate change against union workers who want jobs.
Peduto and Fitzgerald spoke to PublicSource last week about their different perceptions of the petrochemical impact on the area and how they see their differences playing out going forward. Both said they are committed to continuing their close political relationship going forward.
When looking for a corporate home, Peduto said business leaders often ask him about air and water quality. Companies in the 21st century can locate anywhere, he said, and the ability to attract workers is primary. Although it wasn’t the deciding factor, Peduto said Amazon asked about bike lanes and air quality.
Fitzgerald said he’s never heard a corporate executive in the county ask about clean air and water. What they do ask him about is the quality of the workforce and transportation, he said. And, while Amazon may have included bike lanes and air quality in its long survey, he said it was not a particular point of emphasis in his conversations with the company.
Peduto said the fracking industry represents a small percentage of Pittsburgh’s economy. Fitzgerald said no city in the country has benefited from the fracking boom as much as Pittsburgh, not to mention surrounding counties.
Fitzgerald said he worries that areas surrounding Pittsburgh haven’t yet been fully brought into the city’s growing economic fortunes and the petrochemical industry is a way to share in the spoils. Peduto said those areas should be investing in climate-friendly manufacturing that will outlast a temporary boom in plastics.
But should Pittsburgh be deciding for the entire region what happens outside its borders? "There are 2.5 million people who live in this metro area,” Fitzgerald said. "So we can’t allow one area to speak to the entire region.”
Peduto said that what happens in places like Potter Township can have a bigger economic impact on Pittsburgh than it does where the plants are built.
"What happens in Potter Township will change the image and reputation of the city of Pittsburgh if it goes wrong,” he said. "The economics of this region are placed in the city of Pittsburgh."
The mayor is concerned, he said, that Pittsburgh residents will never know all the businesses it might miss out on if those businesses are scared away from moving by the health and environmental consequences of petrochemicals. Fitzgerald said the continued growth of businesses, like Facebook, Google and Uber, are proof that these businesses are not being scared away by the region’s air quality, which has been steadily improving.
The American Lung Association’s 2019 State of the Air report graded Allegheny County’s air an ‘F’ for high ozone days and particle pollution.
Plastics will be produced somewhere, Fitzgerald said, so it might as well be here. But the mayor said he thinks the rise of the plastics industry will be short-lived and will in 20 years leave an economic hole as large as the steel industry did. Fitzgerald agreed that it would be a mistake for the region to focus solely on plastics but he said it can be part of a diverse economy.
Peduto’s city government has passed an extensive climate action plan to reduce emissions across the city by 50% by 2030. He said new cracker plants will put the goal and progress already made in jeopardy. But he doesn’t have as detailed a plan to attract green jobs to take the place of petrochemical ones that don’t come.
Fitzgerald credited the fracking boom with already reducing greenhouse gas emissions by providing cheaper, cleaner energy than coal.
Neither Peduto nor Fitzgerald had a sense of if Peduto’s announcement would have an impact on whether Exxon would build a cracker plant nearby. But the Pittsburgh Business Times has published an editorial saying it could be a deterrent.
"Peduto is in essence asking companies not to come,” states the editorial. "He’s telling an entire industry — from the big firms like ExxonMobil to the smaller plastics manufacturers — that they aren’t welcome.”
Peduto said that, while he disagrees with Fitzgerald, he doesn’t doubt his intentions: Fitzgerald is driven to bring jobs and growth to the region, so that it never sees another downturn like it did in the 1980s and 1990s.
"I don’t want to get to the point where we go back to where we were in the ’90s and ’80s, where we are losing our young people,” Fitzgerald said. "For me, this is a core principle and why I got it into this business in my 40s."
Fitzgerald said he realizes that there needs to be more energy put into a transition toward renewable energy and said he is looking toward the federal government to help provide some of that impetus. "You are not going to be able to do this city by city. It’s a global issue,” Fitzgerald said. "We have to have policies in place, which we can be part of."
Peduto isn’t entirely shutting down the possibility of modifying his stance, he said, but he’s skeptical that he can be convinced. Petrochemical advocates would need to refer to scientific studies and expert opinion, he said.
"If you can show me through science where we will continue to grow as we have been growing over these past six years, where we will continue to lower our carbon footprint and we will not pose a health risk to our people, I am listening and willing to work with you,” the mayor said.
Peduto has met with labor leaders, including Darrin Kelly, the president of the Allegheny/Fayette Central Labor Council. Peduto said he hopes that the Blue-Green Alliance, a group that joins together environmental and labor organizations, could facilitate a dialogue about the future of the local economy and environment.
"I think the Blue-Green Alliance is a good place for us all to start,” Kelly said. "We all have to start with somebody who sees both sides. I’m committed to the workers. I’m committed to making sure that workers have a voice but I’m also making sure that our area stays safe.”
The mayor thinks the conversation is urgently needed, and the “new economy” leaders need to be at the table with petrochemical supporters. The conversation needs to be public, he said, to build trust, but there may need to be some privacy to the meetings so that leaders feel safe to speak about their hopes without being shouted down like Peduto said he was.
“We all need to just take a breath and be able to understand how critically important this moment is in the history of our city and region,” he said.
The first follower
As the ‘dancing guy’ YouTube video played in his office, Peduto was in a more reflective mood than he had been even two days before.
Before meeting with Fitzgerald and labor leaders last week, Peduto felt attacked from all sides. State Rep. Summer Lee, D-Swissvale, tweeted about Peduto’s announcement on Twitter, writing that he had not given enough credit to her and state Rep. Sara Innamorato, D-Lawrenceville, for publicly opposing petrochemicals before it was politically safe.
“They oppose everything and that’s why it never resonated when they said it,” he said. "When you wave every flag then you are diminishing your own voice.”
But as Peduto watched the video, his tone became more conciliatory. A second dancer was now flailing his arms next to the first dancer. The narrator said it’s not the “lone nut” who is the most important kind of leader: "It was the first follower that transformed a lone nut into a leader.”
Pretty soon a third dancer in the video followed and then a crowd of dancers formed.
As the video finished, Peduto admitted that, in a sense, he was following in the footsteps of people like Lee. But in another sense, he was still dancing alone, the only politician with a megaphone as big as his who had chosen to take a stand.
Two of the biggest moments of his political career happened on accident. One was a tweet rebuking President Donald Trump for withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement in the name of Pittsburgh. It happened quickly and was followed by widespread acclaim, now totaling more than 25 million impressions on Twitter, Peduto said, and spurred the creation of a National Geographic video that he said has been translated into 83 languages.
This second moment from his climate summit announcement happened as quickly as the first but didn’t receive the same widespread acclaim. Peduto isn’t sure if he will draw any lessons from what happened.
"I am pretty stubborn. I'm not a very patient person,” he said. “That style has been with me since I was a kid. So I'd like to say yes, but the fact is that I will continue to be in the moment. And sometimes when you are in the moment, statements like this happen.”
Oliver Morrison is PublicSource’s environment and health reporter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ORMorrison.