Credit: Susy Morris / Creative Commons

Since 2011, shale gas drilling has been a way of life for some eastern Ohio communities, with residents acutely aware of both the benefits and drawbacks. But as production declines, are those perceptions changing?

Organizers of a 2014 survey hope to find out.

Following up on the Ohio Shale Country Listening Project, which anonymously questioned 773 people from five Ohio counties about the long-term impact of natural gas extraction, survey creators will interview citizens who provided the project with detailed answers about hydraulic fracturing’s effect on the local economy as well as their quality of life.

“We’re taking issues like increased truck traffic and parsing them more finely,” said Ted Auch of FracTracker Alliance, a Pennsylvania-based drilling watchdog organization and listening project supporter. “It will give a larger understanding of what’s resonating with people if we put faces with these surveys.”

With assistance from a research director at the University of London, the involved groups are also planning a peer-reviewed paper on Ohio’s fracking industry. The paper, set for publication this summer, will include the original survey and be framed to reach an international audience.

Further data is needed to drill down into a local gas and oil boom that has not been well-received by all, surveyors said. The listening project — conducted over a four-month period in 2014 by the Ohio Organizing Collaborative with support from the Ohio Environmental Council, FracTracker and an area trade union — found that 43 percent of respondents had a negative view of regional shale development.

Concerned residents, most of them from heavily drilled Carroll County about 90 miles south of Cleveland, worried about traffic accidents, water contamination and insufficient economic protection once shale growth entered an inevitable bust cycle.

The study brought positive responses from 28 percent of participants, who pointed to jobs and money coming into the county thanks to fracking. Landowners cashed in by placing well pads on their property, respondents noted, while hotels and other businesses put residents to work.

Nineteen percent of participants had a mixed view on the practice, and 10 percent had no opinion or took a neutral stance. Data was gathered from an online survey and meeting people in their neighborhoods or at events such as fairs and football games.

“Participants were chosen based on anyone willing to take the survey, regardless of how they felt about fracking,” Auch said.

Questions about fracking’s viability have not dissipated in the last two years since the survey was made public, he added. In response, the Ohio Organizing Collective and its partners released a list of recommendations to gauge whether a population is willing to co-exist with gas companies if their voices were heard.

“People were presented all of fracking’s upside, but none of the downside,” Auch said.

Clarity is critical

Increased transparency around shale production, even in slower times, would ease some distrust toward mineral extraction, said Paul Feezel, president of the citizen-based organization Carroll Concerned Citizens.

Though Utica shale continues to produce large quantities of fuel — over 6 million cubic feet per day, according to an October 2015 report from the federal Energy Information Administration — the billion-dollar revenue projections of earlier years have not been met. Free-market think tank Opportunity Ohio reported last year that the Utica formation was producing less than 33,000 barrels of oil per day compared to more than 1.2 million in the Bakken formation and 2 million in the Permian Basin.

“We’re not heading into a bust, but it’s still a substantial reduction,” said Feezel. “We’re trying to protect landowners’ rights while holding the industry accountable.”

The citizens’ group, formed in 2010 before Ohio’s oil boom began, has done its best to keep Carroll County’s mostly rural population informed, Feezel noted. In past years, the organization held public meetings with officials from drilling company Chesapeake Energy.

However, Auch believes state entities should communicate better with landowners and policymakers regarding critical data like shale production and local job creation. While the Ohio Department of Natural Resources website includes quarterly production information from horizontal well operators, that data could be relayed to communities more frequently, he said.

And with information on fracking-related job migration being largely anecdotal, Carroll County and surrounding drilling areas deserve specific job data from the state labor department, Auch said.

Providing these figures would keep the population knowledgeable about shale’s benefits and risks, he added. For example, lower oil and gas production can affect royalty payments from developers to property owners for drilling on their land.

“Hard numbers need to be shared as broadly as the potential figures were,” Auch said. “Then we have to have community leaders be willing to listen to this data.”

Benefits and risks

Though drilling has slowed in Carroll County due in part to low oil prices, the practice’s economic upside should not be ignored, said Amy Rutledge, executive director of the Carroll County Chamber of Commerce.

Overall unemployment through the first 11 months of 2015 averaged 5.7 percent, down from 6.1 percent the year before, Rutledge said. Sales tax collection dropped by 8 percent from 2014, but was still more than $1 million above pre-drilling totals. Meanwhile, Carroll County’s bed-tax collection grew 13 percent in 2015 as new hotels opened. Then there’s the $899 million natural gas-fired power plant under construction a mile north of Carrollton, expected to employ 21 full-time workers.

“The industry has brought more prosperity to the region,” Rutledge said. “This was very much a dying community before. We had businesses closing on a daily basis.”

FracTracker’s Auch and other observers agree that shale development has its advantages, but they worry depleted wells will lead to additional infrastructure and further disrupt the landscape. The fracking survey illuminated these concerns, with residents identifying poor road conditions near well pads, air quality and damaged farmland as major issues.

Feezel, of Carroll Concerned Citizens, has a pad about 1,600 feet north of his property. When it’s in use, the well sounds like a helicopter hovering in the distance. Not too disruptive by itself, but it’s part of a larger problem, he said.

“There are brine trucks on the road passing people on a double-yellow line,” Feezel said. “People live in Carroll County because of its quiet, rural character and clean air. The trade off (with extraction) is not worth it.”

Industry supporters like Rutledge say noise is mitigated by buffers on well sites. As for pollution issues, a three-year study by the University of Cincinnati determined that natural-gas drilling has had no ill effect on water coming from wells in Carroll County.

Negative rumblings are part of any transformative cycle, and industry growing pains have still led directly to jobs, said Rutledge. The chamber official has two nephews in the business — one working as a well-tender for Chesapeake and another as a maintenance worker for an industry equipment company.

For his part, Auch understands fracking isn’t leaving Carroll County anytime soon. Still, the follow-up efforts around the listening project can bring much-needed power and influence to residents in the epicenter of the Utica shale play.

“It’s about giving these folks more control,” Auch said. “Our study put data to some of the things people have been talking about for awhile.”


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