Balancing Energy, Air Quality, and a Sense of Place in Pittsburgh

Air-QualityOn Monday June 29, 2015 the United States Supreme Court brought air quality into the limelight when it ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency failed to fully consider the cost to energy producers of limiting air emissions.  While the need to balance the costs of regulation against the intended social benefit is nothing new, the highest court of law held the EPA to that standard just months after the Urban Land Institute reported in America in 2015 that quality of environment (including air and water quality) is the top community attribute priority for people choosing a place to live in 2015.

Meanwhile, just over six months ago, Fourth Economy released an Energy Baseline for the Power of 32 Region (the 32 counties surrounding Pittsburgh).  At that time, one of the opportunities identified for further analysis was air quality (more specifically, criteria air emissions and externalized costs).  At the same time, the recent local debate around regulating coal and a quick glance at the Power of 32 Regional Energy flow chart confirm that balancing costs and benefits in terms of air quality is likely to remain a key question for the region’s primary energy input in the years to come.

But the cost of regulation is just one factor that could complicate the air quality issue for the Power of 32 region.  In addition to changes in the way we source energy, the region is also experiencing dramatic shifts in the way we use energy, especially with regard to transportation (our top sector for end-use energy consumption).

Interestingly, during a time when reliance on cars is already declining nationwide, Pittsburgh is ranked fourth among cities with commuters who either walk or bike to work (behind San Francisco, Boston, and Washington DC).  Governmental support for this trend is evident in recent bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure improvements, but also in less conventional steps like considering a “shared space” option downtown.   The new bike share program and monthly Open Streets events also indicate growing support among at least some of the city’s residents.

At the same time, Pittsburgh continues to receive poor marks with “the metro area ranked as 10th-most polluted in the nation for short-term (daily) fine particle pollution, 9th-worst for the year-round measure of this pollutant, and 21st smoggiest for ground level ozone,” according to the 2015 American Lung Association’s “State of the Air 2015” report.

Air quality is a serious health concern for several other communities in the Power of 32 Region as well.  According to the Breathe Project, the risk of cancer from air pollution in Allegheny County places us in the top 1% in the country, while Pittsburgh, Altoona, Johnstown (PA) and Youngstown (OH) are all in the top 10 worst US urban areas in terms of mortality risk from power plant emissions.

It is important to note that cars only account for a small portion (11%) of the region’s air pollution (in fact, criteria air pollutants in Allegheny County come primarily from fuel combustion, which the EPA captures separately from transportation).  But it begs the question, would even more people in the Power of 32 region venture outdoors if they could breathe easier in doing so?

Investing in bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure is a popular tool among regions hoping to attract young professionals, and we now know that businesses in all sectors have been relocating to areas with higher walk, transit, and bike scores.  What we do not quite understand yet, though, is why the millennials we hope will grow our regional workforces have been driving cars less and less and how those habits may or may not change as we continue to recover from the economic collapse of the ‘80s and more recently from the recession.

The air quality question for the Power of 32 region, while not primarily driven by transportation, could change course fairly drastically based on these key questions.  Are millennials drawn to a car-free lifestyle, or are they driven by cost-savings in transportation (the second-biggest expense for the average household)?  And if air quality does not improve without undue burdens on the region’s energy industry, will other amenities be enough to keep them around despite the health risks?