Sparks are flying in the training center of the Steamfitters Local 449 in Harmony. In two rows of cubicles, closed off by thick, orange curtains, new apprentices of the union are learning to work with blowtorches.
“Until six years ago, we recruited maybe 30 or 40 students per year,” said Dale Glavin, director of training at the Butler County center, which opened in 2016. “Now, it is more like 100 students per year.”
The game-changer for Local 449 has been Shell Appalachia’s construction of an ethane cracker in Potter Township, some 40 miles northwest of Pittsburgh in Beaver County. This $6 billion facility on the Ohio River will turn ethane from local shale gas wells into polyethylene, which is used to make a range of plastic products from bottles to clothing.
The cracker plant is changing many conversations about the Pittsburgh region and its future. Most of all, will its environmental effects clash with the progress Pittsburgh has made toward cleaner air and water since its Smoky City steel days?
Pittsburgh now brands itself as a modern city built on research, robots, universities, advanced manufacturing, green energy — and the high-skilled jobs that come with it all.
But there’s another narrative developing: The plethora of shale gas and natural gas liquids in Southwestern Pennsylvania provide a solid foundation to build a new gas and petrochemical hub in Pittsburgh’s backyard. It could bring major investment and many jobs to the area.
Some people think the scenarios could coexist. Others are convinced the air pollution of a petrochemical hub will hurt, maybe even destroy, Pittsburgh’s image as a sustainable city.
But Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald called Shell’s announcement to build the cracker “thrilling” and pointed out that it will provide job opportunities for young people. And, at their technology center, Steamfitters Local 449 is preparing apprentices for those jobs.
“Right now, we have about 200 people at the site of the cracker,” Glavin said. “When the construction of the cracker is at its height, late 2019 and beginning 2020, Shell will need some 2,000 steamfitters.”
Shell predicts that it will take about 6,000 temporary jobs to build the cracker. Once up and running, the facility will need 400 to 500 full-time workers. Estimates on how many additional jobs this one cracker will create vary.
Local 449 has more reason for optimism. A November 2017 white paper from market research firm Petrochemical Update predicts the production of natural gas liquids from the Marcellus and Utica shale plays — located primarily in Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio and West Virginia — can support five or six cracker plants and lead to a petrochemical hub in this area.
That’s not just wishful thinking. On March 12, Ohio Gov. John Kasich said two firms based in Thailand and South Korea will likely spend roughly $10 billion to build a cracker near Wheeling in Belmont County that is almost as big as the cracker Shell is building in Beaver County. As the crow flies, that’s less than 60 miles from Pittsburgh.
And on Nov. 9, 2017, China Energy Investment, considered to be the largest energy company in the world by asset value, announced the signing of a memorandum of understanding promising to invest $83.7 billion in shale gas, power and chemical projects in West Virginia.
Chemical hub, bad air
Matthew Mehalik, executive director of the Breathe Collaborative, an advocacy group focused on improving air quality, sees no reason for optimism about a gas and petrochemical hub near Pittsburgh. His main concern: Pittsburgh’s air quality.
“The latest assessment of the 2017 air emissions already shows an uptick in Allegheny County ozone levels, where many years the trend has been downward,” Mehalik said. He said he believes this uptick in ozone levels is caused by shale gas activities in Washington County, though that can’t be definitively proven.
Mehalik thinks Pittsburgh shouldn’t only focus on the emission of the one cracker. He said that about 1,000 gas wells will supply the cracker with ethane, which means pipelines, cryogenic plants for fractionation and compressor stations. “All of those are major impacts on the landscape, the environment and public health,” he said.
The Breathe Collaborative, which receives funding from The Heinz Endowments*, doesn’t have hard evidence that other more environmentally-conscious companies shy away from Pittsburgh because of the bad air quality.
“Companies who would do that aren’t going to hold a press conference to say that they’re not choosing Pittsburgh because of the air quality, ” Mehalik said.
He does believe air quality and related health issues are major considerations for technology companies when they decide whether they want to set up shop in Pittsburgh. The fact that there are plans to frack in Bell Acres and in the Fox Chapel school district will, according to Mehalik, stop people from coming here.
Mehalik points out that it’s taken Pittsburgh a long time to develop the narrative of a clean and sustainable city. He’s concerned that the progress will evaporate in the presence of a petrochemical industry that creates air pollution, contributes to climate change and produces non-degradable plastics that clog up the world’s oceans and landfills.
There’s scientific evidence that air quality affects health and health affects productivity, which translates to the bottom line of a business. So, it seems possible that many tech companies, including Amazon, would look at air quality when considering Pittsburgh.
Audrey Russo has been president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Technology Council, a technology trade association, for about 10 years and said she has an in-depth understanding of what companies are looking for and what matters to them.
Russo said she’s not naïve about Pittsburgh’s air quality issues. And yes, she does know of one family with a young child who decided not to come here because of the air. But she’s not aware of any technology companies that stayed away for that reason.
“We rank similar to LA in terms of air quality,” Russo said, “and yet, that hasn’t stopped the rapid proliferation of innovation over there, particularly in the fields of video gaming and virtual reality.”
And speaking about Amazon, Russo pointed out that the company just recently decided to double its presence in its Pittsburgh engineering center.
Where Mehalik sees a conflict between the two narratives of Pittsburgh, Russo sees synergy.
She believes research and development [R&D] from the local universities will provide innovation that can ultimately make the petrochemical hub safer and less polluting.
An eye on pollution
At Carnegie Mellon University’s Center for Atmospheric Particle Studies, associate research professor Albert Presto has for several years studied regional pollutant emissions from energy extraction and consumption.
Presto said he thinks most of the pollutants, especially the air toxins, from Shell’s cracker in Potter Township will only affect the people who live and work in close proximity and downwind from the cracker. However, the cracker will likely elevate ozone levels in Pittsburgh.
“Basically, you need hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides and sunlight to get ozone,” Presto said. Because the cracker will emit hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxide, he concludes that ozone levels will rise. Chronic exposure to high ozone levels can lead people to develop asthma and other respiratory diseases.
According to Presto, the epidemiology teaches us that the response to ozone is linear with exposure. In other words: If ozone increases by 10 percent, the negative health effects will get worse by 10 percent and if ozone levels double, the negative health impacts would also double.
Presto pointed out that Allegheny County is currently out of compliance with the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s ozone standard, but just barely. “This means we’re at a place in this region where even a small change in ozone levels could really matter,” Presto said.
When a county exceeds the ozone standard, industries face extra costs and restrictions in order to make the area comply. This could prevent others from starting business in the area.
Though Presto doesn’t believe that only one cracker will have a big effect on the air quality in Pittsburgh, an entire petrochemical hub in the Ohio Valley is a different matter. “Then there’s a chance that you will have a lot more ozone and also more secondary PM (particulate matter).”
Pittsburgh already ranks in the top-10 worst regions in the United States for particulate matter — pollutants that can lead to heart and lung disease, asthma and cancer.
Personally, Presto said he would prefer not to live downwind from a petrochemical hub. However, he’s also aware that having a good economy requires jobs at various skill levels. “If we shut off all manufacturing or blue-collar labor, that’s maybe not a good thing.”
If it’s about which sector will produce the most jobs in the region, a developing petrochemical sector may have more bragging rights than Pittsburgh’s high-tech scene.
In May 2017, the American Chemistry Council, a national industry trade group, presented a scenario in which the development of a Appalachian petrochemical hub could, by 2025, deliver 100,000 new and permanent jobs to the quad-state region of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky.
Pittsburgh’s technology sector, on the other hand, may have produced many start-ups and lots of highly skilled jobs, but, according to a September 2017 Brookings Institution report, it has failed to translate these assets into broad-based economic activity.
While Pittsburgh is far outdoing other American cities in university R&D spending per capita, it lags in the creation of jobs. In fact, the Brookings Institution report shows that Pittsburgh has 7 percent fewer jobs in high-wage, high-tech advanced industries than it did in 2000. The city simply has no big technology companies that employ a lot of people, the report concludes.
The authors of the Brookings Institution report said: “Without a robust platform at all skill levels, the city’s significant research and technical strengths will fuel only a small portion of the region’s economy and leave many workers and families behind.”
It’s also worth noting that the extraordinary developments in two areas Pittsburgh is famous for — robotics and artificial intelligence — are widely predicted to do away with many jobs.
The Brookings Institution report spurred the creation of InnovatePGH. This new public-private partnership, led by executive director Sean Luther, sees it as one of its tasks to make sure the tech sector gets better at creating jobs for residents of Pittsburgh.
Luther said he can envision synergy between the city’s innovation and the petrochemical hub. He hopes Shell will bring some of its R&D to Pittsburgh.
“We’re seeing in other cities that companies with large manufacturing portfolios in a regional system want to locate their engineering centers, their R&D, in direct proximity to top-ranked universities.”
InnovatePGH will, in Luther’s perspective, play a role in connecting the new industries in the region, like Shell, with the innovation platform based in the city of Pittsburgh. He pointed out that Shell might be here to build a cracker, but that the company also has considerable investments in a sustainable energy portfolio.
Luther acknowledged that Pittsburgh’s air quality is a concern and a challenge for the city, but he doesn’t believe it stops people or companies from coming to Pittsburgh. “But that shouldn’t preclude us from raising it as an issue and make sure that it doesn’t become an impediment to growth,” he said.
Robots or plastic
So what will dominate Pittsburgh’s narrative in the future? Robots or Plastic? Geeks or Crackers? Green energy or fossil fuels?
Or will the Pittsburgh of the future have a mixture of all this?
Mehalik of the Breathe Collaborative thinks many are missing the point, and he provided an example to illustrate what he means:
Pennsylvania tax breaks to Shell can eventually add up to $1.65 billion. The state of New York — where fracking is not allowed — will invest at least the same amount of money to subsidize green technology.
Shell’s cracker is estimated to produce 400 to 500 new permanent jobs. New York’s investment in the solar industry and wind turbine manufacturing will, according to Mehalik, deliver 40,000 jobs.
Mehalik said: “I’m afraid people in Pittsburgh will wake up one day and think, ‘Boy, I wish we had thought about this some more and made some other choices.’”
*The Heinz Endowments provides funding to PublicSource.
Teake Zuidema is a Dutch photographer and journalist living in Pittsburgh. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story was fact-checked by Abigail Lind.
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Through Dec. 31, the Wyncote Foundation, Loud Hound Foundation and our generous local match pool supporters will match your new monthly donation 12 times or double your one-time gift, all up to $1,000. Now that's good news!
Readers tell us they can't find the information they get from our reporting anywhere else, and we're proud to provide this important service for our community. We work hard to produce accurate, timely, impactful journalism without paywalls that keeps our region informed and moving forward.
However, only about .1% of the people who read our stories contribute to our work financially. Our newsroom depends on the generosity of readers like yourself to make our high-quality local journalism possible, and the costs of the resources it takes to produce it have been rising, so each member means a lot to us.
Your MATCHED donation to our nonprofit newsroom helps ensure everyone in Allegheny County can stay up-to-date about decisions and events that affect them. Please make your gift of support now.