Appalachia Counties Lose Jobs, Population Despite Massive Fracking Boom
The 22 counties in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio that have been at the centre of an extraordinary, decade-long fracking boom have seen very little job creation or economic gain as a result, concludes a new study released last week by the Pennsylvania-based Ohio River Valley Institute.
The report “explodes in a fireball of numbers the claims that the gas industry would bring prosperity to Pennsylvania, Ohio, or West Virginia,” said John Hanger, a former Pennsylvania secretary of environmental protection. “These are stubborn facts that indicate gas drilling has done the opposite in most of the top drilling counties.”
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Shale gas production in Appalachia “exploded from minimal levels a little over a decade ago, to more than 32 billion cubic feet per day (Bcf/d) in 2019, or roughly 40% of the nation’s total output,” DeSmog Blog reports.
“During this time, between 2008 and 2019, GDP across these 22 counties grew three times faster than that of the nation as a whole. However, based on a variety of metrics for actual economic prosperity—such as job growth, population growth, and the region’s share of national income—the region fell further behind than the rest of the country.”
Although the fracking boom “has received broad support from politicians across the aisle in Appalachia due to dreams of enormous job creation,” DeSmog adds, “counties that saw the most drilling ended up with weaker job growth and declining populations compared to other parts of Appalachia and the nation as a whole.”
The counties covered by the study accounted for 90% of the region’s output.
“Ohio’s seven eastern counties—Belmont, Carroll Guernsey, Harrison, Jefferson, Monroe, and Noble—were the hardest-hit, seeing a net job loss of over 8% and a population loss of over 5%,” the Institute writes. “Pennsylvania’s eight primary gas-producing counties—Bradford, Greene, Lycoming, Sullivan, Susquehanna, Tioga, Washington, and Wyoming—did better, with a net 4.6% gain in jobs. Although that was slightly less than the statewide average gain of 4.7%,” and the population still declined 2.6%.
“Only in West Virginia did the natural gas counties—Doddridge, Harrison, Marshall, Ohio, Ritchie, Tyler, and Wetzel—outperform the state for personal income and jobs,” the Institute adds. “But even then, the rate of growth was less than half the national average and the rate of population loss was greater than in the state as a whole.”
And there’s virtually no prospect that those numbers will turn around.
“What’s really disturbing is that these disappointing results came about at a time when the region’s natural gas industry was operating at full capacity,” said report author Sean O’Leary. “So it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which the results would be better.”
Inside Climate News traces the billions of dollars fracking companies invested in the three states, but says the industry was still “was unable to deliver on local prosperity even though gas production itself exceeded the most optimistic projections.” While the fracking boom “offered economic hope in the Upper Ohio River Valley after the collapse of the steel industry and amid the decline of coal mining, which was hastened by a glut of cheap gas,” jobs across the 22 counties increased by only 1.7%, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, while nationally the number of jobs grew by 10%.”
In what DeSmog calls a “particularly shocking case,” Belmont County, Ohio “has received more than a third of all natural gas investment in the state, and accounts for more than a third of the state’s gas production,” reporter Nick Cunningham writes. “The industry also accounts for about 60% of the county’s economy. Because of the boom, the county’s GDP grew five times faster than the national rate. And yet, the county saw a 7% decline in jobs and a 2% decline in population over the past decade,” with only about 12% of the capital-intensive industry’s income going into wages and employment—compared to more than 50% across the economy.
DeSmog contrasts the dismal job and population results with what the American Petroleum Institute predicted in 2010—a surge of 211,000 jobs by 2020 in Pennsylvania, and 43,000 in West Virginia. Now, API spokesperson Bethany Aronhalt calls the Ohio River Valley Institute report misleading, but addressed her response to Inside Climate’s questions to the institute’s motivations, rather than its findings.
“While some groups may be focused on pushing their own agendas, our industry is focused on advancing solutions for a cleaner future, delivering affordable, reliable energy, and powering the nation’s economic recovery,” she told ICN in a written statement.
“We think they misunderstood what is happening here,” agreed Ohio Oil and Gas Association spokesperson Mike Chadsey. “They are driving at a narrative that is anti-oil and gas and doesn’t take into account the lower unemployment numbers, the investment numbers, and the 200,000 oil and gas jobs in Ohio.”
Meanwhile, what the region lost in potential job gains, it certainly made up in serious health impacts.
“There can be no mistake that the closer people live to shale gas development, the higher their risk for poor health outcomes,” Alison Steele, executive director of the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project, told DeSmog. “More than two dozen peer-reviewed epidemiological studies show a correlation between living near shale gas development and a host of health issues, such as worsening asthmas, heart failure hospitalizations, premature births, and babies born with low birth weights and birth defects.”