Marcellus Shale: Gas Drilling in Northern West Virgnia

This weekend there were two featured articles from Time and WSJ on natural gas drilling.  This topic is particularly important and relevant to my current place of residence as I know several people who have sold the rights of their property to profit from the Marcellus Shale.  The article from Time was a long, well-written, and thought out piece that presented many of the issues at stake.  The WSJ article, on the other hand, skirts the environmental issues and focuses on the economic advantages, the volatility of the market in the past, and the fact that natural gas could be a game changer.  After reading these latest articles and driving through an area this weekend where they are constructing well platforms, I want to address three issues that are crucial to this topic.  First, the local economic impact of this industry as it arrives and grows in the area.  Second, the environmental impacts, and the third is government regulation which is linked to the second.

In West Virginia and around the country, experts, officials, and even the president are touting the benefits of natural gas drilling promising a proliferation of jobs in area that is deteriorating demographically and economically.  At first glance, it would appear that the movement of this industry into the region would be economically beneficial; however, the truth is obfuscated.  Yes, new jobs will be created, but most of these jobs will not create lasting economic benefit in West Virginia.  First of all, these companies that are moving in and buying the drilling rights are not based in West Virginia as most are located in Texas and Oklahoma; therefore, the majority of these jobs will be good paying blue-collar jobs – jobs a man can be proud of.  But, this does not create lasting economic growth in a poor state.  If we take for example the coal industry, we can perceive what these giant corporations will do.  They will take the raw material, they will take the money, and they will return to their mansions and penthouses in New York, Houston, Dallas, Boston, and Richmond and spend their fortunes elsewhere.  Thus, our region remains poor.  The southern coal fields of West Virginia where these types of companies have been mining for a century remain poor, unhealthy, and poorly educated.  How are we supposed to trust the new corporations moving into the area?  Secondly, when discussing the job creation, the Time’s article makes an excellent point when it states that many of the people working on the drilling sites are not new local workers but men from Texas and Oklahoma who have the training and skills needed to operate the mines.  This I fully believe as a local hotel near the new sites is filled with pickup trucks bearing license plates from these states.  I am not angry that these men are here and are employed – it is hard to find work these days.  I just don’t want my local and state government officials telling me that drilling for gas will create local jobs when it does not.

Many of the new wells and collection sites being built nearest my home are still under construction and so I am not sure what the environmental impacts will be, but, in my opinion, they have already created landscape pollution.  Many complain about the construction of windmills, but I would rather see a hundred windmills dotting the hills of West Virginia that the large cement platforms with the enormous drilling apparatuses.  But I can get over that.  I am mainly concerned with how the fracking process will affect the water supply of the region.  At this time, there is currently a Halliburton loop-hole when it comes to this industry.  The companies do not have to disclose the chemicals they put into the water they are pumping underground to break up the shale.  This is absurd.  How is it possible for an industry to pump what could be potentially poisonous material into the ground where it can get into the local aquifers.  This not only affects humans but also the small farms located out in the areas where the drilling sites are being constructed.  How can a farmer sell milk, beef, or eggs from an animal that has been poisoned by drinking contaminated water?  This is where we need to address government regulation.  People today do not want hear that phrase; it has become anathema.  However, there will always be some things that government does and better than private industry including public health.  The only way the government can protect public health is to close the loophole so that public knows what is being pumped into the ground and create clear and immutable regulation that will clarify what these companies can and cannot do.  This would alleviate many of my environmental fears concerning the advent of gas well drilling in the region.  As for the economic concerns, there is no real solution as I cannot control what these corporations will do.

Update 4/11/2011 –

I have been discussing my ideas about the natural gas drilling with my neighbors and friends some with political connections.  One of the objections they raise the most is that my understanding of the jobs situations is wrong.  They argue that natural gas drilling will create service sector jobs especially in hotels and restaurants as the migrant workers from the south come to drill the wells.  While no one should be ashamed of these jobs, especially because they put food on the table and gas in the car, these are still not the type of jobs the region needs if it wants to remain economically viable,  If the population moves away for jobs, there will be no one to go to restaurants or hotels.  We as a region need to concentrate on creating decent white collar jobs that will keep our educated children in the area and attract others to relocate.  I am not expecting the region to turn into a major metropolis but if we want to keep the population level steady we need to concentrate on creating the right types of jobs.

In other news, an article on the Atlantic.com is highlighting a paper by a Cornell scientist which argues that the carbon footprint of natural gas is equal to that produced by coal.  The article attempts to suggest that this will cause the environmentalist to find fault with natural gas as they do with coal.  I find Cornell paper to be somewhat overblown and it is only one experiment. This type of testing will need to be reproduced several times to convince anyone that natural gas is just as dirty as coal.

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