By Elizabeth Vargo
The polar vortex is back with a vengeance—such a vengeance that Jack Gerard’s flight from Washington to Pittsburgh was one of many cancelled this past week. Gerard, President of the American Petroleum Institute, was scheduled to speak at a policy luncheon on “America’s Energy Choice” hosted by the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh. Nonetheless, the winter weather didn’t keep Associate Director Joseph Leighton of the Pennsylvania division of API from stepping up to the plate, or rather the podium quite literally, to speak to a room full of energy experts and local high school students at the luncheon held at the Duquesne Club on Wednesday, January 22.
Leighton, who advocates for development in Pennsylvania’s oil and natural gas industry, shared a few moments with Pittsburgh-area high school students prior to the luncheon. “Nowadays, it’s hard for young people to find good jobs,” Leighton states outright. Education in mathematics and the hard sciences, such as chemistry and geology, is the key for young people to eventually attain a well-paying job, says Leighton. In fact, the father of two continually stresses ad nauseam the importance of math and science to his own children.
Despite his heavy emphasis on math and science education, Leighton also acknowledges the need for students in the trades. “Welders,” he points out for instance, “are going to be in great demand.” Leighton, who joined the Army Military Police immediately upon graduating from high school, understands the certain stigma of not choosing the traditional four-year college path. Nonetheless, as he followed his military service with time at community college, Temple University, and then law school, Leighton is living proof that an unorthodox educational path can result in success. “I love my job,” he adds with a smile.
Furthermore, Leighton notes that within fifteen years, over half of the workers in his field will retire. This major demographic shift, coupled with increased energy demand in both the United States and emerging world markets, will create a scarcity of capable workers, Leighton predicts. The American energy industry, he says, will need not only more college-educated engineers, but also skilled trade laborers to work in plants and build American infrastructure.
Also in regard to America’s future, Leighton notes what he believes to be the most pressing issue the US currently faces: the nation’s dependence on foreign energy. This lack of energy autonomy creates not only a domestic problem, but also a critical national security issue. With three years of military service, Leighton fully realizes the threat that dependence poses, as many oil-exporting countries hold “hostile” outlooks toward US interests and ideals. Leighton, remembering his Army buddies, states that he is willing to do whatever it takes to keep the US out of such hostile foreign countries. He adds that placing Americans in harm’s way for the sake of energy is “immoral.” Fostering self-sufficiency in energy can mitigate the issue, Leighton contends. Thus, he urges for further development of American oil and natural gas resources. Pennsylvania, Leighton observes, is “blessed” with a “diverse portfolio” of energy sources, including natural gas, coal, wind, solar, and hydro power, and as a result, has emerged as a major leader in taking full advantage of its energy capabilities.
While other regions of the US may not possess the same natural resources, they ought to take advantage of what resources they do have, Leighton proposes. For this reason, the recent controversy over the development of the Keystone XL Pipeline frustrates Leighton, who states that there is no “concrete” reason why the pipeline should not be completed. In fact, Leighton says the delay of energy and infrastructure projects like the pipeline is in fact “irresponsible,” as thousands of American jobs are forfeited. With much experience advocating before policy-makers, Leighton realizes first-hand the power of “political agendas, flawed science, fear mongering, and misinformation” in stalling projects such as the completion of the pipeline in the Midwest or the expanded use of hydraulic fracturing in Western Pennsylvania. Putting a man on the moon and ending World War II took less time, he adds as historical points of reference.
To combat such delay and obstruction in the political process, Leighton ultimately urges the public to hold their elected officials accountable. “2014 is an election year,” he states, adding that Americans must vote for leaders that are “willing” to implement policies based on energy independence. Before November comes around though, Americans must be aware of not only their elected officials, but the issues themselves. “We need an educated electorate,” Leighton urges, ultimately leaving the public with a call to action at the start of this new election year.