As of 2018, Indiana led the nation in steel production — a process that puts out a lot of greenhouse gas emissions and other pollution. In order to meet climate goals, steel companies in Indiana will have to reduce those emissions significantly.
Researchers with Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy said that won’t be easy. Indiana releases the most toxic pollution per square mile and the state’s top three emitters are steel companies.
The problem is the blast furnaces most of them use. They not only put out a lot of carbon emissions, but replacing them with cleaner technology is expensive. Other strategies to reduce emissions at steel facilities are also pricey, don’t lower emissions much, or both.
But to get steel emissions down significantly, researchers said we may have to use all of them together.
Center on Global Energy Policy research associate Zhiyuan Fan said there are ways the federal government can help — like setting up grants to fund blast furnace replacements and making sure low-carbon steel gets purchased first.
“And also we need to provide special incentives for the early adopters because a lot of the technology today are not mature and need special incentives," he said.
John Larsen is with the independent research company the Rhodium Group. He said steel is in just about everything countries need to lower their greenhouse gas emissions — from wind turbines to electric vehicles to carbon capture technology.
“If we don’t decarbonize steel, we’re not going to decarbonize the global economy, period," Larsen said.
Labor advocates worry about what making the steel industry greener would do to workers and the communities that host steel facilities. Pressure from the Biden administration to reduce emissions could cause steel companies to move more manufacturing plants overseas — along with the emissions and jobs that go with them.
Roxanne Brown is the international vice president at large for the United Steel Workers union. She said unfair trade practices also play a role in how green the industry can be.
"We make cleaner steel here in the United States, but unfortunately we've lost a lot of capacity to make steel because China is overproducing steel," she said.
Brown said it's important that whatever technologies U.S. steel companies choose to use to reduce emissions are also made by U.S. workers.
Indiana Environmental reporting is supported by the Environmental Resilience Institute, an Indiana University Grand Challenge project developing Indiana-specific projections and informed responses to problems of environmental change.