Mayor Bill Peduto’s comments during the Climate Action Summit last week about saying no to additional petrochemical plants in the Pittsburgh region drew a lot of attention. Environmental advocates cheered his statement, while local business leaders including PNC Bank President, Chair and CEO Bill Demchak and Stefani Pashman, CEO of the Allegheny Conference, which Demchak chairs, pushed back.
At this morning’s EcoDistricts Summit in Pittsburgh, where hundreds from across the country and beyond converged around the topic of sustainable and equitable development of neighborhoods, the Mayor appeared with County Executive Rich Fitzgerald —who also opposed Peduto’s statement — in a half-hour welcome. The topic didn’t come up then or during the Q&A period.
NEXTpittsburgh caught up with the Mayor after he left the stage, asking about his comments last Wednesday and the rift they seem to be causing.
“First off,” he said, “I think we have to ask, why is it causing a rift? Do you remember that meeting, when all the community leaders came together and we decided that we were going to build petrochemical plants, and then Ohio was going to build one, and West Virginia and the industry said, ‘We can build four more.’ No. Because that meeting never happened.”
Without any real public consensus, he points out, it’s possible the number of these plants may rapidly increase, impacting the environment — and thus the economic future — of the region.
“Air comes over to Pittsburgh, which employs as many or more than any surrounding county. And it has an effect on our reputation and on our economics. And when a small group of people feel that they have the ability to control that type of agenda, then we have to question. And that’s what I’m doing. I’m questioning,” Peduto said.
“Right now, there are three petrochemical plants, one being built and two being planned. And the industry wants to build four additional. Did we talk, as a community, about the effects of seven petrochemical plants downwind in the city of Pittsburgh? We haven’t. And the companies that have rebuilt this economy have not been at the table.”
He went on to point out that the companies that are rebuilding this region into a high-tech, 21st-century success story aren’t likely to invest in a place that’s full of petrochemical pollution.
“When you go and you talk to Duolingo and Google and Microsoft and Facebook and Argo AI and Uber, the companies that are employing thousands — companies like Philips bringing 1,100 jobs into the city, and SAP 700 — have they said that they want to live in a city with seven petrochemical plants around it?”
And if the city’s business leaders pretend that’s not a problem, he said, “it will come at a cost of the economy that is being built and rebuilding this region.”
Offering people temporary construction jobs while a cracker plant is being built is not enough, he said. The region needs ongoing jobs with long-term stability: “If our long-term vision is a boom or bust industry that may have 20 years life,” Peduto told NEXTpittsburgh, “then we never learned one lesson from the collapse of steel.”
Peduto also pointed out that he isn’t trying to prevent the opening of the plant that’s already underway.
“I didn’t say shut down the Beaver County cracker plant, walk off the scene and shut it down, because it is ridiculous. They’re not going to do that. What I said is, now that we have this one being built which will be completed next year, we have to evaluate whether we want to become Chemical Valley.”
What is he requesting?
“We need to have a transparent economic development strategy for the tri-state region. We need to involve all companies at the table, have all labor at the table and all elected officials at that table. It needs to have a science-based approach of exactly how much carbon and methane we are creating and what the negative effects of that are. And then we have to be able to understand this is is a three-state region.
“If we overplay and compete against each other for a short-term gain, it will have long-term negative effects. With three petrochemical plants online, the question is, how much is too much? Nobody’s having that conversation. Absolutely nobody. And what we’re doing is we’re in a boom, where everybody’s trying to compete against one another in order to be able to build as many as we can. When you allow one industry to control what that economic destiny is, it has a direct effect on the other companies in this region, and they’re not at the table. The idea that there are no opportunity costs of building out petrochemical plants and becoming a ‘chemical valley’ is not only short-sighted. It’s ignorant to the basic economics of what clean air and clean water mean. They are not the externalities that can just be tossed aside. They have to be a full equation in the economic strategy of this region.”
As companies around the world adopt all 17 of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, he said, it’s time for Pittsburgh-based companies to do the same.
“This region’s future will be based on whether we can retain and attract new businesses of the 21st century, not continue the 19th century. And if we can’t even start that discussion, then there will be problems moving forward,” Peduto told reporters.
“The very fact that I asked these questions and there is an overwhelming attack says that we’re not ready to even discuss the issue.”