Marcellus shale site
A drilling site in the Marcellus Shale. Credit: Penn State / Flickr

In mid-October, a trio of shale drilling states — Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia — signed an agreement to grow the natural gas industry on a regional level, focusing on job training, infrastructure and other areas.

As that tri-state connection forms, a grassroots network of independent policy organizations and research groups located within the affected region are shaping a more holistic dialogue about the long-term consequences of hydraulic fracturing.

The Multi-State Shale Research Collaborative, with member groups in Ohio, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia, monitors economic development and the community impacts of energy extraction in the Marcellus and Utica shales.

Affiliates of the coalition, launched in 2013, include the Fiscal Policy Institute (New York), Policy Matters Ohio, Keystone Research Center/Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, Commonwealth (Virginia) Institute for Fiscal Analysis, and West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy.

“You have pro- and anti-fracking camps, but our goal is to navigate the middle ground,” said Amanda Woodrum, a researcher with Policy Matters Ohio. “We document and acknowledge both the benefits and the costs.”

The group’s research focuses on four heavy shale-drilling counties: Carroll County in Ohio, Tioga and Greene counties in Pennsylvania, and Wetzel County in West Virginia.

Interviews with township and county officials revealed the consequences of rapid industrial development of shale gas on municipal services and community institutions such as hospitals. While this data has been previously collected at a county level, there has never been a systematic attempt to aggregate these sources over fracking regions, Woodrum said.

Tackling these issues on a larger scale can aid communities in making the most of extraction’s “boom” while mitigating the effects of an inevitable “bust” cycle, research group members believe. Next year, the collaborative will amass information on housing, traffic, local access to jobs and other shale industry concerns for a “scorecard” that will be sent to legislators.

“Troubling practices and negative impacts from shale development look similar in all our states,” Woodrum said. “By working together, we can share experiences and best practices and promote high standards.”

One small step

The recent interstate pact, signed by West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, Ohio Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolfe, is a solid step in getting a regional conversation going about issues like job creation and damage done to road systems by trucks carrying fracking-related equipment, said Woodrum.

However, collaborative members urge more cooperation among states on these questions as well as implementation of a 5 percent severance tax the coalition believes is a reasonable proposal for oil and gas companies to pay their portion of costs associated with the shale boom.

A commitment to consistent policies on taxes and compensation for areas impacted by drilling would strengthen the recently inked tri-state agreement, said collaborative supporter Ted Auch, a Cleveland-based program coordinator for the drilling watchdog group FracTracker Alliance.

Auch, who has worked with the collaborative as an advisor, said the group could be even more ambitious in its call for a severance tax hike. A 5-percent drilling tax, though an improvement on Ohio’s present half-percent marker, is still well below the national average of 9.5 percent. Proceeds could be sunk back into fracking areas to provide sufficient oversight, resources for job training and needed infrastructure.

“These are five- to 10-year wells when you look from an ecological and geological standpoint,” said Auch. “It’s worth trying to extract flesh now rather than trying to get it over the long run.”

Working as a team

A wider approach to oil and gas production also applies to expansion of the industry workforce, collaborative members said. In Ohio, the Utica shale formation is expected to generate 10,505 full-time jobs in state by 2019, according to a study released in September by Cleveland State University’s Maxine Goodman Levin College of Urban Affairs.

Even with the uptick, companies will continue to use transient workers for well-field development and construction of interstate pipelines, the report stated. While locally produced employment could include well maintenance and other post-production activity, Ohio will need more than the approximately 3,000 jobs grown thus far through drilling activity, said Woodrum.

Policy Matters Ohio has brought in collaborative partners from Pennsylvania and West Virginia to discuss the matter further. In Pennsylvania, direct employment in oil and gas more than tripled (from 9,659 to 33,137) in the seven years since the Marcellus Shale boom began, according to a state Department of Labor and Industry study.

From a regional standpoint, those numbers are not as impressive as they sound, Woodrum said. Shale-based employment accounts for one out of every 795 jobs in the Appalachian Basin, as stated in a 2013 collaborative report.

A parameter of the Oct. 13 state agreement is the creation of industry-supported training programs akin to ShaleNET. Paul Kaboth of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, which hosted an economy-focused shale symposium with the collaborative in March, said building “cracker” plants in drilling areas would spur additional job growth. Cracker plants turn ethane, a component of natural gas, into ethylene, a chemical used in plastics.

“We should be working together to bring those processing facilities to the region rather than have that fuel piped elsewhere,” said Kaboth. “The secondary and tertiary effects of extraction are what the collaborative needs to be working toward.”

State lawmakers, with the collaborative’s advice, should also set high environmental standards for the industry, said Melanie Houston, director of water policy and environmental health with the Ohio Environmental Council. Houston points to air emissions and protective distances between fracking wells and water sources as problems that can now be addressed in full.

“We need to learn from our sister states about the impacts residents are feeling,” Houston said. “These issues cut across borders.”

Ultimately, the multi-state research network can be a powerful force in translating data for legislators unschooled on the ins and outs of natural gas, said Auch of FracTracker.

“It’s a chance to hold policymakers’ feet to the fire,” he said. “Increasing their scientific literacy rate should be a goal, too.”