US Steel just made a major announcement that they will upgrade their Edgar Thomson mill with a new steel-making process. “The company expects the projects to reduce emissions of particulate matter by about 60%, sulfur dioxide by about 50% and nitrogen oxides by about 80%.” (https://www.post-gazette.com/business/career-workplace/2019/05/02/U-S-Steel-to-spend-1-billion-on-Mon-Valley-Works/stories/201905020023)
I have a few reflections/comments about this: In short, the emissions reductions will certainly benefit the community, but the climate consequences will haunt us for generations to come.
Right off the bat, however, I have a question about those emissions numbers: I am curious to know whether these reductions are from the entire Mon Valley Works or just from Edgar Thomson. Since most of the Mon Valley Works emissions come from Clairton Coke Works, and US Steel indicates that they will still make and use coke, and that if they were going to make a big upgrade to Clairton Coke Works they would have announced it, I suspect this emissions reduction announcement only applies to ET. Hopefully US Steel will clarify this soon.
This investment in coke-based steel comes at a time when other companies around the world are working on coke-free steel using natural gas or hydrogen-based processes (https://www.cleanenergywire.org/news/thyssenkrupp-switch-hydrogen-based-steel-production-2050 and https://pittsburghquarterly.com/pq-environment/pq-environment/item/1531-cokeless-steel.html and https://www.thespec.com/news-story/4190319-u-s-steel-natural-gas-process-will-soon-replace-coke/). Coke and natural-gas based processes still emit extraordinary amounts of CO2, and the International Energy Agency has indicated that we can’t build any more major CO2-emittting infrastructure projects and expect to stay below 2C of global warming, let alone 1.5C. (https://www.theguardian.com/business/2018/nov/13/world-has-no-capacity-to-absorb-new-fossil-fuel-plants-warns-iea)
In total, the IEA calculated that existing infrastructure would “lock in” 550 gigatonnes of of carbon dioxide over the next 22 years. That leaves only 40 gigatonnes, or around a year’s worth of emissions, of wriggle room if temperatures are not to overshoot the 2C threshold.
Furthermore, the newly announced coke-gas based power plant adds to the carbon burden embedded in new infrastructure. So, while at first glance it appears to be good news, the new carbon burden that this $1B investment places on our climate will unfortunately pit the hard-working men and women of the Mon Valley Works against the global climate movement for decades to come. And to the extent that the global economy is impacted by “climate emergency” actions like the one taken yesterday by the UK Parliament (https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-48126677), it will make our local industrial job-base vulnerable to the global push to zero-carbon industries. That may come in the form of international tariffs, consumer pressure, investor pressure, or even national legislative de-prioritization of fossil-based industries. The facility may even be forced to be shut down due to its excessive emissions. US Steel is operating as if “business as usual” is sufficient to address the climate disaster unfolding around us. US Steel is wrong, and to the extent that we tie our fortunes to this type of flawed decision-making, we will suffer. We need to ask US Steel how its new investment supports the Paris Climate Agreement goal of limiting warming to 1.5C. If the company limits its answer to “lightweight steel is good for efficient cars,” then ask about the CO2 emissions expected from its new process. Hopefully shining some light on their plans, and the consequences of those plans, will help us all make better decisions about how to thrive in the Mon Valley and across the world. We are the ones who will ultimately decide whether or not our children will be forced to ignore the climate crisis in order to put food on the table.