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The Future of Petrochemicals in Western Pennsylvania: A Community Perspective

Daniel Rossi-Keen
November 21, 2019
On October 30, 2019, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto publicly announced his opposition to additional petrochemical development in Western Pennsylvania. Responses to the Mayor’s comments were substantial and swift, quickly generating the kind of polarization that has become all too familiar in public discourse about important and contentious topics.
To date, the vast majority of voices speaking into this matter have come from outside of Beaver County, home to the most substantial petrochemical buildout in Western Pennsylvania. When Beaver County voices have been present in this conversation, little attention has been paid to the complex issues faced by community members who are most affected by regional decision making. This document seeks to widen the terms of the ongoing conversation, bringing to bear insight gained from working alongside more than fifty community organizations and several hundred residents who are seeking wisely to navigate the quickly changing landscape that is Beaver County.
A quick examination of reactions to Mayor Peduto’s comments reveals two predictable response patterns. One strain of reactions suggests that a commitment to regional economic growth requires support for petrochemical development. If you want a strong economy in Western Pennsylvania, according to this view, then you better get behind petrochemicals. On the other side are responses which suggest that regional health and petrochemicals are necessarily mutually exclusive, that fidelity to the environment demands opposition to petrochemical proliferation.  
On paper, breaking such a complex debate into an obvious binary decision makes some sense. If Western Pennsylvania sits atop one of the largest sources of natural gas on the planet, and if the byproducts of these commodities are what the invisible hand of the global economy wants, then anyone interested in regional economic development better start peddling what the world is looking to buy. If, on the other hand, the planet is spiraling toward its demise at the hands of industrial abuse and exploitation, and if further petrochemical development is going to accelerate that process, then those of us with such a volatile resource beneath our feet better do all we can to forestall that impending crisis.
When the issues are framed in such a binary and oppositional way, one is led to believe that Western Pennsylvanians must make a clear and resolute decision between enthusiastic embrace and undying opposition, between the economy or the environment, between maximizing profit or saving the planet. There is, if prevailing frames of the issue are to be believed, no middle ground in this debate about the future of our regional economy and our planetary health.
The reality of the situation facing Western Pennsylvania is impossibly complex, and such complexities are obscured by prevailing frames of the debate sparked by Peduto’s comments. At issue is not merely a debate about economy versus ecology, money versus health. The challenges and opportunities emergent from the impending petrochemical buildout run deeper than most of us appreciate and place Western Pennsylvania at the center of an impending global showdown about the future of our planet and of humankind. Like it or not, our region has become ground zero in the global debate about climate change, about the role of plastics in humankind’s future, and about the place that extractive industry should play in the 21st century and beyond. It is not an overstatement to suggest that the eyes of the world are staring at our region, waiting to see whether and from where leadership will emerge regarding these most consequential of matters. We therefore cannot continue to act, and speak, as if there are easy solutions to these incredibly complicated issues. We must move beyond simple binaries and embrace the complexity that inheres in the reality staring all of us in the face.
One would be hard pressed to argue against the need for clean and alternative economic models in our quickly changing world. This need is perhaps most apparent in a place like Western Pennsylvania, where the future of our regional economy is being envisioned and constructed daily both by local leaders and by global market forces. But, asserting that we need a new, clean, alternative economy is not the same as marshalling the resources and ingenuity required to make it so. Recognition of this fact helps to explain why so many Western Pennsylvanians quickly took issue with the suggestion that our region should forestall further petrochemical development. Many who have embraced a vision of our future as a petrochemical hub have done so both reluctantly and as a perceived matter of necessity. It is one thing to theorize about Western Pennsylvania’s role in creating a clean planet as an academic exercise. It is an altogether different conversation to have when your child or spouse is staring you in the face, wondering where groceries will come from and when the electricity will be turned off. Placed in such a context, this conversation no longer involves fair choices. Naively acting as if such choices are fair only generates further division among the very population whose support will be required to make Western Pennsylvania’s future as healthy and beautiful as our loftiest aspirations require. If advocates for planetary wellbeing are to become remotely successful in forestalling the expansion of petrochemical development in our region, planning and activism must result in robust and growing coalitions with the very same people that such activities often alienate. And, they must equitably provide legitimate economic alternatives to longstanding and widespread regional needs.
Given the choice between a dirty future with economic agency and a clean future without, Western Pennsylvanians have demonstrated that they will often make a calculated decision to take the dirty road. Anyone who cannot begin to make sense of the complexities involved in weighing these tradeoffs has little right to pass judgement on those who understand these matters at a palpable, personal level. Given legitimate alternatives, few among us would choose unhealth over financial gain. But, if we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that none among us has yet figured out how to provide such legitimate alternatives in our region at significant scale. And, we must also admit that the freedom to choose health over employment is not a luxury that is equitably available to all residents of Western Pennsylvania.
If and until we rise up as a region, committed to the kind of ideals that many would love to see become reality, we cannot oversimplify the complexities that many of our residents will continue to face as they wait for this alternative vision to materialize. Regardless of what is good for their long-term health, the men and women of our region who have long suffered economic inequities will not abide having their current hopes dashed with only future aspirations put in their place. Urgency almost always wins out over idealism. Those who wish to advocate for our planet must never forget this truth, and must refrain from passing undue judgement on those whose situation demands impossible choices born out of generational need created by unjust and shortsighted legacy systems.
The reality for all humankind is that we desperately need economic and ecological health. This is neither new nor profound, despite the rhetoric attending our current experience of these matters. It has always been humankind’s burden and privilege to steward the earth with dignity and purpose. To be sure, the challenges ahead may be more pronounced, and the consequences may be more dire. But, the entirety of human history provides us with the tools necessary to accomplish the task of creatively envisioning our relationship to one another and to the planet. There are tools littered throughout the human experience that help us to foreground wisdom, that show us how to provoke dreaming, and that move us toward one another rather than further dividing us. Rediscovering and building with these tools are the most urgent needs facing Western Pennsylvania and the world in the 21st century. Building with anything less will doom our region to another predictable cycle of boom then bust, extraction preceding abandonment, expansion followed by inevitable decay.
Whether our region thrives in the century ahead hinges on our willingness to reject a binary decision between planetary health and economic gain. Our ability to flourish depends on our readiness to move beyond mutually exclusive positions, to engage honestly with the complexities facing the region and the world, and to lead the way in marrying economy and ecology in a creative and productive fashion. As a region, we must not be so fearful of alienating industry that we fail to take agency over how our future unfolds. Our ability to do so requires a growing capacity for doing the hard work of creating robust and diverse communities, capable of maintaining difference amidst passion, and committed to honoring one another equitably in spite of divergent opinions. We must ensure that the health of our community-making mechanisms become as robust as the challenges facing the region should we wish to thrive in the coming iteration of Western Pennsylvania’s future. Well-meaning leaders must dispense with economic and ecological colonialism, where the primary goal is to impose one’s view upon those with whom we disagree. Civic voices must learn to articulate a robust view of community, even, and most critically, when we cannot reach consensus. All among us must elevate our humanity above our ideology and foreground wisdom instead of truth at the heart of the community formation process. If this primary work of equitable community building from the grass roots to the grass tops does not become our most urgent need, both the region and the world will suffer because of it.
Responding to the central challenge of our time cannot be boiled down to a single issue. Indeed, a truly enduring response to the firestorm of controversy sparked by Mayor Peduto’s comments will require nothing less than rethinking what it means to be human, relearning what it means to create equitable community even in the face of enduring difference. Western Pennsylvania cannot face the most pressing challenge of our time with a simplistic or deliberately truncated understanding about what is taking place here. We must engage the full spectrum of our experience and imagination if we are to marshal a wise response to these most substantial issues.
Toward Community
At a time when many are speaking to and about what is happening in Beaver County, it is important to know that a number of people living within the shadow of the petrochemical buildout are committed to facing these issues head on, ensuring that our region becomes ground zero for tangible, actionable responses to these incredibly complicated matters. In isolation, the views laid out above run the risk of becoming hopelessly theoretical if not connected to real people and concrete action. So, here is a brief account of how some people are already laboring, at ground zero, to think and respond to the matters at hand.
For several years now, many among us have been journeying together through the process of reinvigorating community in an increasingly polarized world. We have, as best we are able, been knitting together a growing coalition of people and organizations who share a certain disposition. We do not agree about much other than this: we are committed to growing in our ability to create healthy and robust community together. In fact, we are more committed to this than most anything else. Like all movements, ours is growing in fits and starts and we do not yet clearly see all of the implications of the journey we have embarked upon. Ours is a movement without clearly defined boundaries, where it is not critical that people agree with us, so long as they are willing to stand resolutely alongside us. You can learn a bit about some of these stories of community formation by clicking here.
Here at ground zero, our ability to advocate on behalf of ourselves and our children hinges on our refusal to adopt simplistic descriptions of the complexities facing our region. For generations we have been pitted against one another in binary decisions aimed at sowing discord and disunity. We are working, more and more each day, to cast off destructively simplistic frames to wildly complex problems. All among us, in one way or another, have been beneficiaries of the sense of palpable hope that has been reinvigorated in our region in recent months. And yet even so, many among us nevertheless harbor considerable concern that, if poorly managed, those hopes could once again portend scary things for this part of the world that we have chosen to call home. We resolutely refuse to choose between economy and ecology. We have instead gone all in on community, believing that creating robust and equitable community is the only possible path toward long-term economic stability and enduring regional health. More than anything else, we are choosing to honor and support one another, believing this to be the surest path toward full community wellbeing.
Throughout 2020, RiverWise and its partner organizations will be undertaking a number of concrete projects that will further expand our investment in growing our community. One of these projects involves drafting a “Statement of Community Values.” This process has been underway at various levels for at least a year. Throughout 2019, we have been meeting as community members, working to articulate the kind of future we hope to create together. In the coming months, and along with the help of a growing list of regional partners, we will work to solidify this process into a publicly available document. This document will be a deliberate attempt to impose our own frame on the debates that are raging all around us. The challenges and opportunities emerging in our region may be global in scope. But, our ability to craft a meaningful response hinges on the capacity of our local communities to know and articulate who they are, what they want, and what they are willing to stand for and against. We must, as a region, create a collective conscience for those who are willing to use simplistic frames as tools for division among and around us. Our “Statement of Community Values” will represent an act of rhetorical unity born out of growing community solidarity. Insofar as we are able, we will be the authors of our own future, and the story we write together will aspire to be as complex as the issues we are facing.
In the coming months, we will also be announcing the details of a “Global Green Design Challenge” focused specifically on sites throughout Beaver County. The goal of this challenge is at once as straightforward as it is audacious: to solicit, from the global community, world class green projects that bring to life a regional vision for a tangible, sustainable future atop one of the largest deposits of petrochemicals on the planet. We believe that if we are unable to envision radical sustainability in our back yard, then this will undercut humanity’s ability to envision it elsewhere. Western Pennsylvania is ground zero for figuring out how to marry economy and ecology in enduring ways. We must begin acting as if that is true, and the “Global Green Design Challenge” does precisely that.
The mechanics of the “Global Green Design Challenge” are still being worked out, and funding is still being sought both to initiate the process and to bring projects to life. But the basic plan is this. Early in 2020, we will announce up to four potential sites suitable for wide-ranging green design interventions. These sites will be located in and between existing ecodistrict communities throughout Beaver County. They will be sizeable enough to be substantially impactful, and yet focused enough to be transformed in relatively short order. We are already working to identify community values in each of those locations, to describe the technical parameters of each project, and to articulate a series of desired outcomes for each initiative. Working alongside of a global design firm with Pittsburgh roots, we will develop a detailed prospectus for each site. Backed by a focused marketing campaign, the goal will be to invite the world to join us on the front lines of the fight on behalf of a sustainable future. Beaver County residents will study and vote on submissions, cash awards will be given to winning designers, and selected proposals will be brought to life among us. This entire process is designed to demonstrate not only what is possible. More important is how this process will generate a robust and capable community of advocates for the fullest expression of human creativity and stewardship. Not merely something that happens “to us,” this will be an initiative that we actively direct regionally and in concert with global partners, forging an alternative future and insisting upon a more complicated frame for our region.
Managing Complexity in Community
Adopting neither an ideology nor a firm position, RiverWise is committed to working together in any given situation to discern the available resources at our disposal for maintaining equitable community. Likely incomplete, here is a list of some of the varied frames that we are constantly working to hold in productive tension.
History. We must learn from the past and be guided by it. There is little new that is happening here, and our primary charge is to apply wisdom from the past in ways that are most appropriate to our current context.  
Psychology. We must be students of human self-interest and emotion. Working against these forces will move us further from one another and sow discord. Working with these forces can be accomplished in both virtuous or nefarious ways and we must always foreground virtue in the work of community formation.  
Reality. We must contend honestly with the reality that petrochemicals are here. We live on top of them and they will not be easily moved. Development has begun and has already become part of our regional story. We must not delude ourselves into thinking that obstruction without robust alternatives will be successful. We must, for the foreseeable future, create beauty and equity in situations that, to many of us, may be less than ideal.
Economy. We must affirm the dignity of economic security and realize that this is one of the most enduring human motivations for action. We cannot afford to denigrate economy, but instead must celebrate an augmented and creative manifestation of this age-old human enterprise.  
Community. We must work tirelessly to develop and perform a growing version of what it means to live together well. Economy and ecology without community are meaningless. Our most dire need is to live together well; all else will follow from answering this challenge.
Diversity. We must celebrate diversity in all of its forms. There is no single response to any substantive human problem, and our situation is no different. We must honestly and regularly reject the desire to create unity at the expense of diversity. Unity cannot be our goal. Managing creative diversity and designing inclusive forums must be our charge.
Agency. We must grasp hold of and author our own future. The die is not cast; the story is not yet written. We will become, as a region, whatever we allow ourselves to become. We must lean into the burden and opportunities afforded by these truths. Ours is the next frontier of human creativity and health and we must live as poets, artists, scientists, and storytellers.
Sustainability. We must continually hold the future in mind, refusing to generate solutions that are only suitable for short term problems. We must foreground sustainability in every instance, acting as exemplars of what is possible and refusing to subvert what is best to what is expedient, extractive, or profitable.
Ecology. We must celebrate and honor the interrelated, living systems that comprise our shared lives together.  Responding in non-systemic ways to systemic problems will necessarily produce dangerous unintended consequences. We must embody these truths while nurturing adaptive thinking throughout the community formation process.
Possibility. We must act out of imagination, and not be motivated by fear. We must subvert apathy to agency at every turn. We must reject the oft-repeated claim that “this won’t work here.” And we must discipline ourselves to act in ways that regularly and audaciously gives others permission to dream about what might yet be possible among us.
Urgency. We must be honest about the urgency of our situation. Ours is the generation who must bear the weight of history’s failure of imagination and grasp of consequence. We are ground zero in the fight to envision a different future for humankind. Failure to wear this mantle will be to the detriment of many.