This is the time of year when “Year-in-Review” articles appear. Relax, this is not one of them.
Actually, it is a 10-year review! Why 10? Because the 10th anniversary of Range Resources’ completion of the first hydraulically fractured Marcellus well is next year.
It would be hard to overstate the impact that event has had in our region.
Seemingly overnight, drilling companies, including some of the world’s largest, moved to the region, turning Washington County into the Energy Capital of the East. Drillers brought jobs and created opportunities for local businesses. Occupancy rates in hotels rose and business parks such as Southpointe expanded. The fees and taxes paid by drillers to the host counties that were reinvested in infrastructure and other services are at levels that were not possible before drilling. Now some counties hope to generate additional revenue by leasing public land for drilling.
Of course, the boom brought its share of challenges too.
Defining the proper roles for the state and our local communities in regulating drilling has been a struggle. And while drilling has created jobs, not all jobs were filled locally because our workforce lacked the skill sets needed by this new industry, a frustrating missed opportunity.
That is what strikes me most about the last 10 years. As a county, we were unprepared (at least initially) to take full advantage of the opportunities or to cope with the challenges. That is not a criticism. We have learned along the way, and I think we have managed through the challenges pretty well.
The question now is: Will we be prepared for the next 10 years?
Although drilling will be with us a long time, we are probably entering an era when the pace of drilling will fluctuate. Yet while the number of wells drilled may also fluctuate, the volume of gas produced in our region will continue to grow. So what will this unprecedented era of abundant and affordable natural gas mean for us?
A lot has been written about growing natural gas supplies and the reinvigoration of American manufacturing. Shell Oil’s proposed huge ethane cracker plant is an extreme example, but certainly we could see a significant resurrection of smaller scale manufacturing because of gas. If manufacturers locate or expand in our region, or specifically in Washington County, are we prepared for it?
Will we have the trained workforce? Will we have sites and related infrastructure in place to attract and support expanded manufacturing? Can government at all levels provide a streamlined and efficient regulatory approval process while protecting essential community resources and values?
There are things we can learn by looking back, but the next 10 years will be less about the wellhead and more about the burner tip as the gas industry likes to say. And it is not too soon to start thinking ahead. Business organizations like the Washington County Chamber of Commerce need to collaborate with academia, planning organizations, government and industry to develop a comprehensive catalog of future needs so that when the next chapter in the natural gas story begins, we will be ready.
Jeff Kotula is president of the Washington County Chamber of Commerce.