- Grove City, Pennsylvania

Local News

April 29, 2014

PSU prof shares some shale research

NEW WILMINGTON — With thousands of gas and oil wells across the state of Pennsylvania, there’s a lot to consider when it comes to what kind of effect that activity could have on any number of factors including jobs, population, the environment and more.

“Think about this over space and time,” said Dr. Kathryn J. Brasier, an associate professor of rural sociology in the Department of Agricultural Economics, Sociology and Education at Penn State University.

Brasier on Wednesday shared her department’s research about the social implications of Marcellus Shale with a crowd at Westminster College, New Wilmington, in a talk titled “Community Impacts of Shale Energy Development: A Research Summary.”

It was sponsored by the college’s Sociology and Criminal Justice Studies Department as part of the induction of the newest members of the Alpha Mu Chapter of Alpha Kappa Delta, the International Sociology Honor Society.

“Be open to change. Be open to new opportunities,” Brasier said to the students in the crowd, using a PowerPoint presentation to illustrate her talk.

She began with a timeline of unconventional oil and gas development - Marcellus shale has been known to contain natural gas for decades, and it wasn’t until the 1980s through the 1990s that technology and testing in the Barnett shale was adapted to perform hydraulic fracturing and directional - or horizontal - drilling.

The first Marcellus well was drilled in 2003 in Washington County, Pa., and in 2005, gas prices started to climb and we saw the beginning of the “lease rush,” she said.

By 2012, there was a drop in natural gas prices and movement from “dry” to “wet” gas areas. “It’s making its way into public discourse,” Brasier said about her next PowerPoint slide, which showed everything from documentaries and TV dramas about drilling to news stories about damaging earthquakes and fires related to well drilling.

She reviewed the phases of natural gas development: the pre-development phase involves leasing and seismic testing; development is short-lived but labor intensive and includes building the well pad, drilling, fracturing and pipeline construction; the production phase takes longer - water and condensate are trucked from the well site and sometimes the well has to be drilled and fractured again; and reclamation is the last phase, when everything is dismantled and the well sites are reclaimed.

Her team’s research indicated that the local economic and social impacts of drilling are driven by the degree of local ownership of mineral rights; the ability of local workers and businesses to capture economic activity; and the timing, scale, pace and location of development.

Development follows a “hub and spoke” pattern, the hubs being regional and corporate headquarters, worker housing and services, and supply and equipment maintenance and storage; all of that flows to areas with drilling, Brasier said.

She also discussed the “boomtown” research model, which shows rapid industrialization of small, isolated rural communities. “How do we take that research and apply it here?” she asked of that model, which was focused on energy development in the “intermountain West” in the 1970s and 1980s.

Community impact studies to date have used data like population change, economic effects, housing, crime and the criminal justice system to gauge Pennsylvania residents’ expectations and concerns about drilling. Population increases are higher in non-Marcellus counties compared to counties with Marcellus shale, and there is a slower loss of population, or reversal from loss to gain, in Marcellus counties during years of active drilling, she said.

As for local economic impacts, Marcellus counties have reported increases in employment, wages, the number of businesses and taxable income. The majority of increased taxable income came from lease/royalty payouts.

Brasier pointed out her team’s research shows total employment and wages paid by employers are not proportional to the number of county residents working, which could mean new jobs are going to non-residents.

The housing aspect and how it relates to drilling revealed the rush of gas workers and their families early in the development process leads to increased rental rates; a lack of housing and available emergency shelters; a rise in homelessness and temporary living conditions; demand for temporary housing like hotels and RV parks; and increased hotel revenue by about $900 million in Pennsylvania from 2005 to 2012. “There are reports about increased homelessness,” Brasier said.

The housing market has begun to adapt by building more rental units and hotels, but that could mean there’s the potential for over  building, going back to what Brasier calls the “boom and bust cycle” that is the drilling industry.

“Shale gas has the potential to be incredibly productive,” she said. “But when it’s gone, it’s gone.

There seems to have been an increase in crimes reported by state police since drilling activities have started in Pennsylvania, but at this point the research team can only call it a coincidence because there’s no clear way to tell if the offenders are drilling industry employees, which would imply they’re bringing more crime into the area.

Brasier also touched on residents’ concerns about how drilling could impact agriculture, the workforce education, competition for workers and materials, drinking water, wildlife, air quality and tourism, and how it’s increased the amount of truck traffic. “You can’t swing a dead cat right now without hitting a water truck,” is a favorite quote.

Residents also wonder how drilling will impact the things they appreciate the most, according to the team’s survey -- living in a natural environment, neighborliness and quality drinking water. “Will this change what I see as a special place to be?” Brasier said of what the residents asked themselves.

In a 2009-10 survey done by Penn State, more people said they supported Marcellus shale development than those who opposed it. That same survey showed most people agreed the negative impacts of drilling can be prevented if it’s done right, while another chart showed folks have more faith in scientists and agencies like the Department of Environmental Protection than the gas industry. “Less than half the people trusted the industry in the survey,” Brasier said.

There are still challenges to her team’s research in continuing to collect accurate data, like figuring out how to track industry workers while also making sure not to stereotype them. Also, there needs to be more opportunities to better engage the public - more task force groups, more dialogue, more hearings. “How do we engage them in a conversation that is meaningful?” she asked.

Published April 19, 2014, in Allied News. Pick up a copy at 201 A Erie St., Grove City.

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