Of boom and bust
PITTSBURGH – A group of regional scholars, community development organizations and industry representatives presented a first-ever two-day symposium Nov. 12-13 examining the boom and bust nature of energy extraction and the impacts it has on practically every aspect of life in Western Pennsylvania.
In his opening remarks, Dr. Alan Seadler, associate academic vice president for research at Duquesne, said the symposium, which was a collaborative effort by Duquesne, Penn State and Washington & Jefferson College, was “conceived as a working session which could bring together policy makers, industry and academia to develop a research agenda studying the issues faced by local communities involved with the cyclic nature of energy extraction as it relates to the latest boom in shale gas activity.”
Dr. Joel Tarr of Carnegie Mellon University demonstrated to about 60 attendees at Duquesne’s Power Center that in many ways, the region has seen it all before.
A professor of history and policy, Tarr noted that many remember the collapse of the steel industry between 1978 and 1983 as an example of a onetime booming industry that went bust.
“This is not a new topic but a major issue is how we have dealt with booms and busts in Pennsylvania communities,” said Tarr. He added that other similar cycles have occurred in the state’s timber and mining industries, and yes, in natural gas in the early 20th century.
Tarr noted that between 1875 and 1890, the discovery of natural gas, which was found with the discovery of oil in the state, was seized upon by entrepreneurs to use the resource for lighting of homes and businesses.
The first natural gas revolution also was the impetus for regulations governing distribution and the construction of pipes to carry the fuel, Tarr said.
The product also was responsible for creating clearer skies in Pittsburgh, as gas replaced coal as the primary fuel, before supplies were depleted, causing a speaker at an 1892 meeting of the Society of Engineers in Pittsburgh to bemoan the fact that “we’re going back into smoke.”
He noted the Pittsburgh region rapidly adapted to natural gas when it was delivered by pipeline from the Southwest in 1947.
Three nurse practitioners, including two from Washington County, discussed a qualitative study they conducted in 2011 among women living in three Southwestern Pennsylvania counties.
While Lenore Resick, from the Cecil area, and Joyce Knestrick, of South Franklin, and their colleague, Mona M. Counts, said they did not mention shale extraction activities in a survey of the meaning of health among mid-Appalachian women within the context of their environment, they said some women living near drilling sites expressed concerns about health risks. Others who lived farther from the sites told them they didn’t feel threatened by the drilling activities.
The three women, who have submitted their research for publication in the Journal of Environmental Science for Sustainable Society, said they hope to do additional work on the health effects the extraction industry has on a community over time and how towns can prepare for it.
Dr. Kai Schafft, associate professor of education at Penn State and director of the university’s center on rural education and communities, said his study of school districts in Northeastern Pennsylvania found that many school administrators saw opposing issues regarding the impact of shale on their areas.
“Those who perceive economic opportunities are also likely to perceive economic risks,” he said.
Some told him they saw economic benefits for those with gas leases, “but said there was no benefit yet to the school,” he said, adding that others said they were unprepared for the advent of natural gas drilling in many ways.
Regardless of the challenges researches said exist in trying to ease the boom-bust cycle of gas extraction, Ken Zapinski, senior vice president of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, said natural gas drilling is here to stay and is one of several energy technologies, including coal, nuclear and power distribution that are making the Pittsburgh region a major energy center.
“We are the new center of American energy,” Zapinski said.
As for natural gas development, he said the conference has been active in determining how the region can best develop its workforce to meet industry demands in the future, for every position from welders to engineers.
“We want to capture as much of the natural gas drilling industry as we can; we’re not just working to get drilling jobs.”
On the second day, Washington County Commissioner Diana Irey Vaughan spoke on “Balancing Washington County Growth with Responsible Development.”
“Washington County is the leader in the region for the natural gas revolution,” Irey Vaughn said.
“There’s no question the gas industry has had a significant impact in the development of Washington County.”
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 said, noting the presence of energy companies Range Resources and Consol Energy, as well as successful non-energy companies Ansys and Mylan Inc.
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 Nov. 13 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.
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.
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, said 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.
“ShaleNET works at getting people jobs,” Kohut said. “The Pennsylvania workforce is strong.”
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