Trib Live | Sept 22 2020|
U.S. Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette visited the Pittsburgh region this week, stopping at a multibillion-dollar ethane cracker plant being built in Beaver County, Carnegie Mellon University and the United Association Local 449 Steamfitters headquarters in Pittsburgh.
The visit, according to Brouillette’s staff, was to highlight the importance of Appalachian natural gas and technology development within the region. His stop in Duquesne Heights included a roundtable discussion with energy and business leaders in Western Pennsylvania, hosted by Pittsburgh Works, a labor management organization.
“Our primary mission, initially, was to make sure we were a part of the economy,” said Jeff Nobers, the organization’s executive director.
Post-pandemic, he said the mission has expanded to not only grow the economy back to where it was, but to make it even more vibrant. The group intends to do that through a policy agenda focused on rebuilding infrastructure, encouraging private investment and promoting vocational education in the region.
Brouillette told the Tribune-Review he wanted to promote a message of versatility in energy production during his visit, emphasizing an “all-of-the-above strategy” with energy extraction.
“Nothing is off the table,” he said. “Nuclear power, renewable power, natural gas, coal, oil. We will pursue all of these, because places like Western Pennsylvania are absolutely blessed with those fuels.”
Western Pennsylvania’s Marcellus shale gas reserve is the largest in the world, helping the United States to become one of world’s largest producers of natural gas and a top exporter of the resource.
“That creates an economic opportunity, obviously for people here in Western Pennsylvania but all across the country as well,” he said. “It really has created the middle class that we all talk about wanting.”
The fossil fuel extraction industries have experienced nationwide stagnation as a result of the covid-19 pandemic, though, with many companies laying off workers as demand rapidly declined and some companies falling into bankruptcy. Even before the pandemic, Western Pennsylvania was coping divestment and layoffs at some large energy companies, including EQT and Chevron.
Brouillette was confident Tuesday about the industry’s economic recovery, saying it would see a “V-shaped” comeback in production. He expects the pandemic to leave no long-term impacts on the industry, predicting that once the economy is fully reopened, fuel consumption will return to pre-pandemic levels.
“As that demand comes back, you’re going to see production numbers follow that demand curve pretty quickly,” he said.
He was equally optimistic about addressing climate change and the region’s air quality issues — the Pittsburgh area has been ranked among the worst in the nation by the American Lung Association, citing annual pollution levels. And while fracking produces lesser carbon emissions, it has been linked to groundwater contamination and the release of methane gas.
Brouillette said technology is being developed at the Energy Department to allow cleaner extraction of natural gas, and he praised the use of carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS), technology that can be used to reduce carbon emissions, especially when it comes to coal production. In addition to exporting fuels, Brouillette said the United States has the potential to export clean extraction technologies and spur progress in other countries.
Brouillette said that over the past 15 years or so, carbon-related emissions from the production of energy have gone down more than 14%, even amid economic growth. He said the problem isn’t in places like Western Pennsylvania – it’s in places like China or developing countries that do not abide by the same environmental standards.
A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found most Americans believe the United States should focus more on developing alternative energy forms. Data shows that while wind and solar energy development have grown in the United States, they still makes up less than 4% of the energy used.
Brouillette said it’s critical to not push out natural gas or coal too quickly.
“The story that’s untold is that today in the marketplace, renewable power is almost entirely dependent on fossil fuels and nuclear technology,” he said. “No one wants to say that out loud because it sounds politically incorrect at times, but that’s the truth.”
“If we’re going to pursue 100% renewable technology today, there are going to be times when the lights go out,” he added. “There’s just no way to avoid it.”