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Southwestern Pa. unions disappointed that regional hydrogen hub will be based in West Virginia

A hydrogen fuel cell bus is refueled at a fueling station
Tony Dejak
A hydrogen fuel cell bus is refueled at a fueling station, March 16, 2021, in Canton, Ohio. The White House has selected the Philadelphia area and West Virginia for two regional hubs to produce and deliver hydrogen fuel, an important part of the Biden administration's clean energy plan, according to a person familiar with the plan.

President Joe Biden on Friday presented a long-awaited winner’s list of “hydrogen hub” projects set to receive a share of $7 billion in federal funds.

But hours before he was expected to discuss the investments at a speech in Philadelphia, there was palpable disappointment from some quarters in southwestern Pennsylvania, which appears destined to receive a consolation prize instead of approval for its own proposal.

The hydrogen hub program is an effort to jump-start the transition away from fossil fuels to cleaner-burning hydrogen for use in vehicles, power generation, and manufacturing. Regions from around the country submitted proposals to receive a portion of the federal funds. The Pittsburgh region’s own proposal, called the Decarbonization Network of Appalachia, sought to develop the use of “blue hydrogen” — hydrogen fuel created by burning natural gas — for use in power generation and plastics.

On Friday morning, the White House made clear that it had passed up that proposal for one next door: the Appalachian Regional Clean Hydrogen Hub (ARCH2). While that proposal did envision some job creation in western Pennsylvania as well as Ohio and Kentucky, the bulk of its investment will be made in the heart of West Virginia.

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“We will have a role in the WV-based ARCH 2 projects, and some jobs will be created here and in other areas of the state, but certainly not at the level we had hoped,” said a statement Friday morning from Jeff Nobers, executive director of the local business and union consortium Pittsburgh Works Together.

Nobers said the group was “disappointed that the SW PA-based DNA project was not chosen” and said the group hoped to “better understand what the DOE saw as deficiencies in the Pittsburgh region’s proposal.”

ARCH2 is led by the state of West Virginia, Pittsburgh-based natural gas company EQT, and several other companies and institutions. ARCH2 was backed by West Virginia Sens. Joe Manchin and Shelley Moore Capito.

ARCH2 will be eligible for up to $925 million in federal funding and is expected to create up to 18,000 construction jobs and 3,000 permanent jobs if it is fully built out, administration officials said. Though officials declined to offer specifics about Pennsylvania projects, administration officials said one project would be built in La Belle, Fayette County, and another in West Keating Township, Clinton County.

In a presentation made to a natural gas drilling conference last month, ARCH2 sponsors presented a map that sketched out the type of investments their project would include, with approximate job ranges identified for each. In that map, southwestern Pennsylvania looks to benefit with between about 150 to 550 jobs in aviation and truck fuel.

Several hundred more jobs are slated for areas north of the metro area, and there are other job centers envisioned for the nearby West Virginia panhandle and eastern Ohio. But that’s a fraction of the several thousand jobs that sponsors envision creating.

Nobers noted that a separate hub proposal in the eastern part of the state did receive federal approval, a fact touted by officials including Gov. Josh Shapiro, who noted on social media that his was "the only state to secure projects for two regional hydrogen hubs. The future of clean energy will run through Pennsylvania."

“Blue hydrogen” is controversial because it still relies on burning fossil fuels to create the hydrogen fuel, and the infrastructure needed to sequester carbon dioxide and other climate-change pollutants is extensive and unproven at the scale envisioned. But the approach has been embraced by local unions as a critical jobs program.

Local officials, who said they'd been given encouraging signs by White House officials within the past several weeks, were casting about for explanations about how the prize had gotten away from them. Some of them surmised that Manchin, a shrewd operator in the halls of power whose seat in the narrowly divided is up for re-election next year, may have helped tilt the scales toward the Mountaineer State.

The region’s umbrella labor organization, the Allegheny-Fayette Central Labor Council, did not conceal its disappointment with the fact that the region’s plan had been rejected.

"We are extremely disappointed that western Pennsylvania was not chosen as a federal hydrogen hub,” said Labor Council president Darrin Kelly. “That said, we’ve been here before, and our people never give up. We always find a way to move forward together, and that’s what we’re doing now.”

Kelly said conversations had already begun with the ARCH2 plan sponsors, and “we have a shared vision for hydrogen power in many important aspects. … This is absolutely not everything that we wanted, but we remain confident that there is a strong commitment to ensure that western Pennsylvania workers will be at the forefront of hydrogen production and clean and sustainable manufacturing and energy delivery.

“We are disappointed, and we are angry,” he added. Still, he said, “We will do what we always do: Get back up and get to work.”

Reid Frazier of The Allegheny Front contributed to this story.

Corrected: October 13, 2023 at 4:36 PM EDT
This story was updated to correct the location of West Keating Township.
Updated: October 13, 2023 at 2:54 PM EDT
This story was updated at 2:54 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 12, 2023 to include an updated statement from the Allegheny-Fayette Central Labor Council.
Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.