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CCJ Response to ORVI’s Report: The Natural Gas Fracking Boom and Appalachia’s Lost Economic Decade

On February 10, the Ohio River Valley Institute released a damning new report detailing the devastating reality so many of us have experienced firsthand: the jobs and prosperity promised to our region by oil and gas companies resulted in nothing but broken promises and crushed dreams.

Contrary to the predictions we all heard from the industry and their political boosters, here in the counties we work and live in, we could see long ago that the job numbers published and pushed out by the industry years ago were based in bluster, not economic reality.

At industry’s behest and encouragement, Pennsylvania promoted shale gas development aggressively in rural areas for more than a decade. And yet, the southwestern counties at the epicenter of fracking do not show any obvious improvement in well-being. Poverty rates in these counties have remained essentially unchanged for two decades. Median household incomes have grown by almost exactly the same rate as they did nationwide. And the local population declined. There was some minimal job growth in Greene County, but aside from that, the oil and gas sector did not become a major local employer in southwest Pennsylvania. At most, industry jobs account for small percent of the workforce.

The fracking boom did not lead to any clear benefits for urban areas either. Despite a surfeit of shale gas, job losses in manufacturing continued so fast they overwhelmed the addition of extraction and construction jobs. In fact, manufacturing employment in the Pittsburgh area is now at its lowest level in modern history, and possibly ever. The fracking boom even failed to deliver low-cost fuel for local residents: gas for home heating in Pennsylvania is actually about 10% more expensive than the national average.

Since 2008, shale gas drilling targeting the Marcellus Shale has dramatically increased in southwestern Pennsylvania. Nearly 2,000 deep shale gas wells have been drilled and fracked in Washington County alone. There have been huge impacts on local people and our environment. The list of toxic chemicals that are used throughout the fracking process has only recently been disclosed to the public. One study assessed the chemicals used in fracking and found that 73% of the products had dozens of different adverse health effects including skin, eye, and sensory organ damage; respiratory distress including asthma; gastrointestinal and liver disease; brain and nervous system harms; cancers; and negative reproductive effects. And, on the same day ORVI published their report, a groundbreaking global study conducted jointly by researchers at Harvard University and University College London found that fossil fuels kill an estimated 1 in 5 people globally every year, and are linked to 1 in 10 premature deaths in the U.S.

As we’ve talked about before, twelve local children and young adults have been diagnosed with rare Ewing sarcoma cancers between 2011 and 2018, and many affected parents have expressed grave concern over the impacts of oil and gas development. Residents across the community have been tirelessly making the case to our elected officials that it’s their duty and responsibility to seek answers.

In addition to health issues, truck traffic has significantly increased on narrow rural roads across Greene and Washington Counties as trucks haul water and chemicals to well sites 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. This increased truck traffic not only poses safety concerns, but has dramatically altered people’s lives by making commutes and travel far more time consuming.

The production, transport, and burning of natural gas produces significant air pollution. Methane, the main component of natural gas, is a potent greenhouse gas (GHG), more than 20 times as effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide (CO2). Other natural gas emissions include carbon dioxide (CO2), sulfur dioxide (SOX), nitrogen oxides (NOX), carbon monoxide (CO), particulates, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) including benzene, among others.

Drilling operations in the Marcellus shale region in the eastern U.S. present air pollution concerns in an area already struggling with bad air quality. Smog pollution from drilling can travel up to 200 miles from the gas production area, causing widespread damage to both human and environmental health.

Ultimately, we’re facing an ongoing pandemic and an urgent economic crisis on top of it. Many of us already weren’t on equal footing after decades of inequality and widespread poverty.  Our local economy and infrastructure are still dependent on coal mining operations, but we are seeing the signs of the big companies bailing on our towns as they have done in so many coal-dependent communities across the country. COVID-19 has drained what little resources were left by shuttering local businesses and putting people living paycheck to paycheck out of work.

We need federal and national leaders and policymakers to invest in an ambitious national transition program that supports the people and places hit hardest by the changing coal economy. In 2020, U.S. coal consumption was predicted to decline by more than 23 percent. And that was predicted *before* the pandemic, which surely accelerated the economic decline, imperiling the well-being of millions of Americans in thousands of places that once relied on coal.

We need community-driven solutions from those of us who know what we need because we live here. We need solutions that create inclusive, equitable, and sustainable economic growth, driven from the ground up.

We need solutions that:

  • Invest in supporting local leaders and organizations to lead the transition — especially Black, brown, women, and indigenous-led organizations

  • Support local small businesses and entrepreneurship

  • Provide a bridge for workers to quality, family-sustaining jobs

  • Reclaim and remediate coal sites

  • Improve physical and social infrastructure

  • Hold coal companies accountable during bankruptcies

  • Create entities to coordinate the transition program and equip communities with the resources they need.

The livelihoods of tens of millions of people and the infrastructure of thousands of communities rely on us getting this transition right. For the health of our communities, the strength of our economy, the future of the country, and the well-being of the communities that powered this country for generations, this is an opportunity we cannot afford to miss.

If you have experiences you would like to share about living next to fracking operations, want to voice what economic options you would like to see, or have other comments about the report or your concerns, please email or call Lisa DePaoli, our Communications Manager, at lisa@centerforcoalfieldjustice.org or 724-229-3550 ext. 5.

Author

  • Veronica Coptis joined the CCJ staff in March 2013 as a Community Organizer and is now serving as the Executive Director. She grew up in western Greene County near the Bailey Mine Complex and currently lives in the eastern part of the county. Before joining the CCJ staff, Veronica served on the Board of Directors for CCJ and organized with Mountain Watershed Association. She received a bachelor’s degree in biology from West Virginia University. She enjoys hiking and geocaching at Ryerson State Park and other areas around Greene County with her husband and daughters. Read more about Veronica in a New Yorker Magazine profile at https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/07/03/the-future-of-coal-country.

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