Darrin Kelly & Mike Butler: Natural gas helping Pa. flourish
When the steel industry and manufacturing sector declined, households throughout Western Pennsylvania struggled to get by and make ends meet. Thousands, understandably, fled.
Those who stayed faced grim employment possibilities. For example, Local 66, a group of the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE), faced an unemployment rate nearing 10 percent, on track to quickly approach 20 percent.
That’s all changed. Many are back at work. Local 66 is now at full employment, with efforts under way to attract more skilled workers. Communities are flourishing. Work sites are crowded. Hotels are full. Foot traffic in stores is up.
Household energy expenses are also lower. So are gasoline and operating costs for small businesses and manufacturers. Per Consumer Energy Alliance, state consumers saved $30.5 billion in natural gas costs over a recent 10-year period, helping to create nearly 322,600 jobs and almost $23 billion in wages.
And, thanks to improved technology and procedures, plus an array of regulations second to none globally, the U.S. has continued its role as a world leader in emissions reductions and energy conservation and efficiency.
The region’s record production of natural gas in the Marcellus and Utica shales is a big reason why.
Local, affordable energy has reduced manufacturing costs and helped employers allocate resources toward capital improvements, increased hiring and better wages. The transportation, agriculture, food processing, mining, tourism, steel and chemical sectors are other large energy-consuming industries whose production and operational expenses fluctuate with the cost of energy and, thus, influence the livelihoods of countless workers and families and the businesses they frequent.
This pendulum, at last, has swung our way. We again have a real shot at the American dream. We need to keep it that way.
To do that, policymakers and communities must continue to embrace every opportunity to support energy. That includes supporting new facilities like the Shell ethylene cracker plant in Potter Township and various infrastructure projects including pipelines, the safest way to move energy.
It also means denying requests for fracking bans and saying no to a severance tax on local production, all of which could cut jobs, force industry to reconsider working in Pennsylvania or make industry consider transporting energy in less environmentally-friendly ways. They’d also risk increasing household energy expenses. About 51 percent of households use natural gas as a primary home heating fuel, and the residential sector uses more than one-third of the power consumed in Pennsylvania. For many, energy expenses like electricity, natural gas and gasoline already eat up a dangerously high double-digita percentage of their take-home income, setting them further back.
In an energy-abundant region like ours, which will reportedly supply about 37 percent of the nation’s natural gas production by 2040, why would we pass on the opportunity to lessen the financial burdens of families and businesses by using our cleaner-burning resources to put more Pennsylvanians back to work and decrease household costs?
Darrin Kelly is president of the Allegheny/Fayette Central Labor Council. Mike Butler is mid-Atlantic director for the Consumer Energy Alliance.