Philly's path to becoming an energy hub

By Ned Rauch-Mannino

City Council is applying serious energy to what it recognizes as Philadelphia’s best, immediate opportunity for significant economic development.

Recent private-sector proposals highlight the potential in repurposing Philadelphia Gas Works’ Port Richmond terminal site for the construction of a liquefied natural gas (LNG) production facility.

Environmentally kinder than coal and oil-based fuels, LNG is used in trucking, maritime, and power generation, and is scheduled to begin fueling international customers this summer. Whether used to power homes and fleets domestically or leveraged geopolitically abroad, LNG represents a profitable niche — among the key objectives of investors working to catapult Philadelphia into the top tier of energy-robust cities.

The magnitude of these projects is extraordinary: The U.S. Department of Energy anticipates more than $85 billion in economic growth over the next 20 years from LNG exports alone, and combined with ever-increasing uses for LNG and interest in fleet conversions, Philadelphia is positioned to meet a variety of demands and truly become America’s next “energy hub.”

Of course, projects like the one in Port Richmond also raise questions, making the possibilities difficult to embrace. Local communities often struggle to recognize the jargon-laden, technical processes in energy production, and, as a result, have a hard time embracing the potential.

But this is clear: LNG will deliver considerable and tangible benefits for Philadelphia and its neighborhoods, and those benefits extend well beyond the immediate revenue boost to city coffers.

Expanding and refitting a facility such as the one in Port Richmond needs talented labor, including steamfitters, pipefitters, ironworkers, electricians, and other Building and Construction Trades Council members.

Any project would find the region’s manufacturing contingent well-poised to supply project materials, including steel, fabricated metals, gaskets, and chemicals. Tioga Pipe, Coating Development Group, and Harry Miller Corp., are among the many neighborhood based and staffed manufacturers ready to brand proposed endeavors as “Made in Philadelphia.”

The First Congressional District, which includes Philadelphia’s Delaware River neighborhoods, is burdened with a strikingly high unemployment rate of 13.4 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. A neighborhood-based project would be a much-needed shot in the arm for these communities.

Philadelphia’s higher education community would benefit as well, by following the example of trend-savvy institutions such as Lackawanna College in Scranton. That school is meeting the needs of the energy industry through its School of Petroleum and Natural Gas by preparing candidates to fill jobs with an average annual salary of $90,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The Community College of Philadelphia is exceptionally positioned to do the same.

Perhaps most surprisingly, among those with the most to gain are those who care about Philadelphia’s sustainability: Significant rehabilitation would be essential to repurpose the infrastructure, steering testing, remediation, and monitoring to an underutilized industrial site, and inevitably lending more care to environmental conditions. Philadelphia can reclaim further brownfields through requirements encompassed within its call for proposals.

Among the other benefits of an LNG facility: Additional investment for PGW’s infrastructure, connections to community organizations, and raising Philadelphia’s overall profile.

Making all this a reality will require determination, intense collaboration, dedicated investment, and appropriate market conditions. This would be a lengthy, arduous process that would demand buy-in from multiple stakeholders. It cannot be ignored that other attempts to develop a niche-energy facility have run out of gas, and this latest approach would need immense planning and political will to succeed.

Councilman David Oh has been charged with investigating LNG and LNG-export opportunities, focusing on how the city can leverage its infrastructure for new revenue and job creation. Oh's research will continue from 6 to 9 p.m. April 16, with a Council energy symposium at Drexel University’s Nesbitt Hall featuring industry voices that will zero-in on the formula to move forward.

The symposium will also address the potential impact on local communities, for, as Philadelphia pursues the “energy hub” moniker, it must not only invite a diverse portfolio of natural-gas uses into the city, but establish how such ventures would affect everyday life.

LNG presents an opportunity for Philadelphia and its communities to acquaint themselves with energy in the best of ways. Whether the city can truly become an energy hub remains to be seen. But, as the investigation continues, residents can look forward to discovering the results with positive energy.

Ned Rauch-Mannino is a government relations specialist for the Ridge Policy Group (www.ridgepolicygroup.com) and the vice chair of the Natural Gas Use Committee of the Marcellus Shale Coalition (www.marcelluscoalition.org). nrauch-mannino@ridgepolicygroup.com; @NedRauch