In Some Regions, Fracking Opponents Push Back Hard
Regional Economic Impact
“There are ways to ensure people’s groundwater is protected and that air quality is maintained without stopping fracking altogether,” says Jane Ard-Smith, head of Colorado Springs’s Sierra Club chapter. Portions of Colorado have high concentrations of active oil and gas wells.
The Environmental Protection Agency is studying fracking and its potential impact on drinking water resources. A first report on the study will be released in late 2012.
A 2010 documentary on Pennsylvania’s Delaware River Basin fanned safety and health concerns. The money shot in “Gasland” was a clip that showed faucet tap water, when exposed to a lighter, explode into a small fire ball. The industry disputes the health and safety issues raised in the film.
Beyond filmmaking, anti-fracking activists have turned to Facebookand the Internet to build support and share resources. Prominent drilling opponents include actor Mark Ruffalo, who has been using his Twitter account to promote action against New York state fracking.
Last week, New Yorkers Against Fracking protested in front of Governor Andrew Cuomo's office in Albany, N.Y. after reports he was considering limited drilling. The protest was among several throughout the state.
"We don't want to turn certain areas of New York into sacrificial guinea pigs," says John Armstrong, head of Frack Action, based in Albany, N.Y. Frack Action is among 130 groups in the larger organization, New Yorkers Against Fracking.
Another prominent group in Pennsylvania’s Delaware River Basin is DamascusCitizens.org. Collectively, community leaders are raising concerns about the long-term economic impact of shale gas to regional economies, including negative consequences for real estate markets.
“How many people from the Upper East Side [of Manhattan] are going to think about a second home in the Catskills or the Finger Lakes if there’s fracking anywhere nearby?” says Armstrong of Frack Action. “Some of these economies are already very depressed."
Beyond potential impact to home prices, new gas jobs don't always go to local residents. Drilling activity can affect infrastructure, including more traffic. Community budgets for education and police protection can get stretched, some economists say.
“There’s not enough information, there’s not enough testing,” says economist Herzenberg with the Keystone Research Center.
Long-term Economic Impact
Fracking ramped up during the 1990s after advances in horizontal-drilling techniques allowed workers to access mile-deep shale gas in multiple directions from a single well. Then in 2005, Congress exempted fracking from complying with federal laws governing safe drinking water and clean air.
The natural gas boom was on, and drillers moved to capitalize on the shale gas play. But the benefits of shale gas production can sometimes be short-lived for communities.
In northern Pennsylvania, energy companies already have shuttered some natural gas wells and moved to other regions, including eastern Ohio, with untapped reserves of both gas and oil. Small businesses that set up shop on the tail end of a well’s cycle are out of luck.
And fracking can displace other sectors, such as farming, leaving fewer industries for residents to fall back on, says Cornell's Christopherson. Local populations, seeking work, can shrink. Just look to past U.S. energy boom-bust cycles.
“While there have been projections of the number of jobs that might be created by natural gas drilling, they are only estimates, and there has been little analysis of the wide range of public costs associated with drilling,” says Christopherson. By focusing predominantly on job creation, “you miss what the implications are for regions,” she says.
For some Pennsylvania communities battling unemployment at around 10 percent, “people wanted this to be the goose that laid the golden egg," Herzenberg says.
But the energy industry is looking ahead, and sees shale gas as a road to energy independence.
“There are growing pains in different communities,” says Dougher of the American Petroleum Institute. “But I don’t think you can overestimate the potential impacts of our nation’s economic growth that this new technology is bringing to the marketplace.”
Meantime, in some pockets of Pennsylvania, the near-term dry-gas run has packed up and moved elsewhere.
“In the recession, people are looking for a fix. This is going to create jobs. They don’t want to think too hard about what the downside is,” Christopherson says. “The United States has a very short term memory.”