Plenty enough energy here to go around

April 08, 2010
By Brian O’Neill, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Congressman Mike Doyle guesses he’s made this claim a time or two around his peers from Texas and Oklahoma: Pittsburgh will one day be “America’s Energy Capital.”

“I’m sure I’ve said it in their presence,” said Mr. Doyle, a Democrat from Forest Hills. “They might have chuckled. I’m not saying we’re there yet; I’m saying we have the potential.”

It’s doubtful anyone is sweating in Dallas, Houston or Tulsa, but the notion of an ascendant Pittsburgh in energy production is not unique to Mr. Doyle. Dennis Yablonsky, CEO of the Allegheny Conference, has sung this song for more than a year.

Pittsburgh is one of only three regions that can count itself among the nation’s top 25 employers in seven energy sectors: coal, gas, nuclear, solar, wind, intelligent building technologies and transmission and distribution components (i.e. making the pipes and the lines.)

The other two regions are Chicago and Detroit, but they don’t share Western Pennsylvania’s enormous resources in coal and natural gas.

It has been said that the Marcellus shale deposits beneath Pennsylvania and neighboring states alone could supply the nation’s natural gas needs for up to 15 years. The trick there will be unleashing the billions of dollars in resources for Western Pennsylvania without destroying Western Pennsylvania.

Last month, the Environmental Protection Agency announced a $1.9 million investigation of the adverse impacts of “fracking.” That’s the process wherein millions of gallons of pressurized water mixed with chemicals and sand are used to crack the shale and release the gas.

Industry officials and their backers are confident that can be done safely, even a mile or more underground, and create 200,000 jobs over time. Mr. Doyle is with them, and he likewise disputes those who say “coal can never be clean and nuclear can never be safe.”

“Nothing great ever came from being easy,” he said.

The “energy capital” designation may yet be a reach, but it already takes in the Westinghouse Electric Co. headquartered in Cranberry. Mr. Doyle called it the producer of “the nuclear power plant of choice in the world.” The designation also includes the National Energy Technology Laboratory, which employs about 1,400 people, roughly half of them in South Park and the rest in Morgantown, W.Va. Still more research is being done at local universities.

As America moves toward cleaner energy, Mr. Doyle says, “a lot of the minds that are going to figure these things out are residing in Pennsylvania.”

Mr. Doyle helped craft the American Clean Energy and Security Act, which narrowly passed the U.S. House of Representatives last June but has stalled in the Senate. Backers of the legislation say it will create millions of new energy jobs, enhance America’s energy independence and protect the environment.

Its detractors say it’s a boondoggle that will cost consumers and kill jobs as utilities are compelled to become more energy efficient. Leaving that argument for another day, the breadth of our regional portfolio should make Pittsburgh a major player no matter which direction the nation’s energy dollars go.

Tens of billions of dollars in the bill are dedicated to mind-bending problems like carbon capture and sequestration — keeping the waste products of electricity production out of the air and water.

“Sometimes 90 of 100 ideas don’t pan out, but the 10 that do can change the economy,” Mr. Doyle said.

“Energy is the next big thing to drive the economy,” he said, comparing it to the dot-com boom of the 1990s. He doesn’t believe (as some predict) that pumping billions into alternative energy will create the same kind of bubble that imploded many dot-com companies.

Dot-com investors were “buying sizzle,” he says. That stuff wasn’t real. Bad energy ideas, he said, can be weeded out in basic research before big money is put into commercialization.

We may not know who’s right about that for 10 or 20 years, but one thing’s clear. There won’t be one solution to the nation’s energy issues; there will be many. A region with a diversified energy portfolio stands a good chance of being one that thrives.