From Steel Gray to Green

President Barack Obama has launched his 2012 re-election campaign and is promoting increased investment in clean-energy technologies, and the success of these investments is growing increasingly important. Investments in technologies will help America out-compete nations like India and China, whose economies are based on environmentally and morally destructive gains.

Pittsburgh knows too well that innovation is critical to competitiveness. As Mr. Obama said, “Steel mills that once needed 1,000 workers can now do the same work with 100.” In the '70s and '80s, Pittsburgh watched as mills closed and workers joined unemployment lines or left for work elsewhere.

Now, with technological investments promised, Pittsburgh's past and present puts her in perfect position to capitalize on these investments. However, to fully sprout green wings and soar into the 21st century, the region needs to hike green manufacturing and encourage high-technology green innovation, which could be paid for if Harrisburg got on board.

Recently, several major corporations moved their regional headquarters to Pittsburgh. It is the perfect midway point between New York, Washington, and Chicago, a location which would provide companies with lower operating costs.

But simply recruiting companies isn't enough. While these firms continue to manufacture outside of the state and the country, it does little to benefit Pittsburgh's manufacturing base or tech innovation, which often occurs on the production line.

Cities in Michigan have already learned this lesson by making themselves more competitive with increased investment in education and job training, converting devastated automotive industrial centers into advanced facilities that are manufacturing and innovating alternative energy solutions.

In Pittsburgh, buildings that once produced steel could be retooled to produce wind turbines and solar arrays. With job training, steelworkers can weld aluminum and steel windmills, or manufacture silicon chips. As was reported in September, Beijing, Shanghai and other Chinese cities produce 50 percent of the global material input for green energy, instead of cities like Pittsburgh. According to US Secretary of Energy Steven Chu at the National Press Club, “America still has the opportunity to lead in a world that essentially needs a new industrial revolution … but time is running out.”

However, this cannot happen if investment in education and technology is not made.

While Pittsburgh's universities have excelled at making Pittsburgh a global leader in biomedical innovation, they lack the same zeal for manufacturing, technical and green innovation. Such technologies will secure the future generation of high-tech patents driving the future American primacy.

Even with the ongoing economic instability, Pittsburgh could still be a contender in “green” investment if Harrisburg were to implement a severance tax on fossil fuel production. This severance tax could support education and environmental sustainability, while spurring innovation. In 2009, Wyoming raised more than $900 million in severance tax; West Virginia implemented a third severance tax phase to address its budget shortcomings.

Decades of pro-fossil fuel seats in the Pennsylvania Legislature has compromised basic environmental regulatory structures in our state, allowing the denigration of air and water quality while greatly usurping education and green innovation investment. The tradition continues with newly elected Governor Tom Corbett refusing to support any severance tax due to his latest strategem to court fossil fuel players' relocations of corporate headquarters to Pennsylvania.

Such political pandering continues to impede a flow of revenue and resources that could easily “green” the city and state. We need a state Legislature committed to a greener state; perhaps it's time to eject these fossil fuel political “fossils.”

Pittsburgh can lead the world. It's time the city makes the necessary investments and changes to lead America to a green future.