Diana Irey Vaughan has been a Washington County commissioner for 17 years. So, it’s no surprise when she is bullish about her turf.
Tuesday afternoon, she was poised to charge.
“Washington County is the leader in the region for the natural gas revolution,” Irey Vaughan said in her opening remarks at the Boom & Bust Symposium at Duquesne University.
She was the final speaker of the two-day symposium, which focused on the so-called “boom and bust cycle” associated with energy extraction, especially related to Marcellus Shale. That cycle describes the prosperity a region may experience from drilling and the negative effects that may surface then linger after wells shut down.
Irey Vaughan’s topic at the appropriately named Power Center was “Balancing Washington County Growth with Responsible Development.” She spoke proudly about how the county and its residents have responded to the influx and increase in natural gas drilling and how the county has grown and prospered since the first Marcellus Shale well was constructed there.
“There’s no question the gas industry has had a significant input in the development of Washington County,” said Irey Vaughan, a Republican who on Election Day last week lost in her bid to be state treasurer. “The opportunity we have to prosper is right under our feet right now.”
Her 30-minute address began with a statistical list of many of Washington County’s virtues: third in the state in active gas wells; 1,650 new jobs in the past year; lower unemployment rates than the nation, state and region; an 8.8 percent increase in wages; third nationally in job growth.
“Washington County’s economic development continues to outperform other areas,” Irey Vaughan proudly stated.
Irey Vaughan pointed out Range Resources “could have chosen any city in Pennsylvania” to establish itself, but partly because of lower county taxes, chose Southpointe in Cecil Township. She added Consol Energy established its global headquarters there, and Ansys and Mylan chose Southpointe for their headquarters.
Industrial parks, she noted, are prospering there and offering future opportunities to a number of companies. Recreational parks have benefited, too. She said the county has secured $5.2 million in leases and royalties for wells drilled there and $2.6 million has gone to county parks.
Most of the nine symposium speakers Tuesday expressed concerns about natural gas drilling, ranging from possible environmental hazards, such as wastewater, to threats to local infrastructure, such as the heavy use of rural roads by heavy trucks approaching and leaving drill sites.
During a question-and-answer period following her talk, Irey Vaughan was asked by members of the audience of 50 about negative impacts drilling may have had on her county.
“The only issue we’ve had,” she said, “is Range Resources cut down some trees it shouldn’t have.”
She said some owners have saved their farms by allowing gas companies to drill on their property, then using the money they received to upgrade their operations.
The commissioners vice chairwoman added the northern part of the county apparently endorses her stance on drilling.
“Peters Township had a referendum on its ballot last year to ban drilling,” Irey Vaughan said. “Eighty-three percent voted against it.”
Asked about a possible bust occurring in her region, she said she and other county officials “have started to have discussions about that. But with Marcellus and now Utica Shale, we expect this to last for a while.”
Byron Kohut, director of Marcellus ShaleNET at Westmoreland County Community College, was among the speakers. His program has helped thousands land jobs in the natural gas industry in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio and New York. Many of them are labor positions.
He, too, spoke in favor of natural gas and the opportunities it affords.
“ShaleNET works at getting people jobs,” Kohut said. “The Pennsylvania workforce is strong.”
Kohut said about 400 people work at a typical well site, a figure that had been introduced – and disputed – during the morning session Tuesday. During a presentation, he showed 67 percent of well site jobs fall under the categories of general labor and general office (both 20 percent), heavy equipment (17 percent) and commercial driver’s license (10 percent).
Jill Kriesky was the initial speaker Tuesday. She is a senior program coordinator in the Graduate School of Public Health at the University of Pittsburgh, and she cited a study from an organization from New Brunswick, Canada, that focused on the dark side of drilling.
One of the conclusions: “Shale gas drilling can result in environmentally and ecologically degraded communities with high levels of socioeconomic deprivation.”