Nobers' Viewpoint: Closure of U.S. Steel batteries a sign of the old ushering in the new

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The Business Journals | March 24, 2023

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By the end of March, United States Steel Corp. will have closed the three oldest coke batteries at its Clairton Plant.

The event could be viewed as routine industrial change, but it merits a deeper look at what it says about the Pittsburgh way of doing things, of evolving toward the future while respecting our heritage.

It is also a story about how important it is for our leaders to ensure our region is friendly and practical toward corporate investment, for the future economic well-being of workers and employers alike. Recent executive orders from Gov. Josh Shapiro are a positive start toward making Pennsylvania more competitive, and counties such as Allegheny should take note.

The announcement of the eventual coke battery closure came in April 2021, with the rationale of reducing U.S. Steel’s environmental impact as part of a more aggressive decarbonization strategy. The closure removes technology that was state-of-the-art when it was built seven decades ago and has been constantly improved and upgraded since. But the company said the batteries were no longer adequate to meet its public commitments to sustainability, decarbonization and zero-carbon emissions by 2050.

So, out with the old. To see the batteries close with no layoffs is a victory of sorts. The company used retirements and attrition to accommodate the closure, but there’s no escaping that there will be 150 fewer jobs in the Mon Valley. When companies act as responsible citizens, the community benefits beyond the economic activity and jobs that they create. U.S. Steel fulfilled its pledge to shut down the batteries on time and as promised even though it cut nearly 20% of the coke-making capacity at the plant.

So, what is the future for manufacturing, with its family-sustaining jobs and economic opportunity in the Mon Valley and elsewhere in Allegheny County?

Behind the closure, unfortunately, is the fact of a challenging regulatory environment aggravated by interest groups whose constant attacks and campaigns have made doing business here an adversarial process for companies. Routine permit applications fall into a bureaucratic quagmire, and doing business at times can seem like a war of attrition. There is a well-funded network of single-issue activists who use the permitting process to create villains, whether a company or an entire industry.

While claiming to defend the environment, these well-funded groups helped contribute to the death of a billion-dollar project that would have created jobs and helped improve Allegheny County’s air quality.

All of that is a loss for the region and the people who live here. Long-term investments and long-term employment thrive when regulation is predictable, as the governor has recognized for the good of the Commonwealth.

Out with the old should have been followed by in with the new, but the Pittsburgh region must bide its time for now. Cleaner air is a goal for everyone, and companies are no different. Tackling sustainability as a steelmaker is no easy feat, given its energy-intensive nature. Addressing that challenge requires collaboration, engineering, innovation and investment.

There is no city of builders, thinkers, makers, engineers and workers better suited for it than Pittsburgh. Challenges of that scale are where we have always come through by following the Pittsburgh model of respecting the new and old, while racing for the future and making commonsense decisions about how to balance our community’s many needs.

We must pull together and place our focus on facts, data, innovation and practical solutions. Let us hope that the closure of the oldest Clairton Plant batteries, in its small way, marks a new chapter that takes Pittsburgh toward a cleaner, more collaborative future.

Jeff Nobers is executive director of Pittsburgh Works Together.

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Jeff Nobers | Executive Director | Jeff@pghworks.com
Ken Zapiniski | Director of Research and Public Policy | ken@pghworks.com
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