Since the industry came to Pennsylvania almost 15 years ago, fracking has been looked at from a lot of angles — economic, environmental, and even geopolitical. But Sabina Deitrick, an associate professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh, and her colleague, Ilia Murtazashvili, noticed a hole.
“We were finding there wasn’t a lot for planners in our municipalities, for supervisors,” Deitrick said. “Volunteers were making decisions on things that had to do with fracking – not pro-fracking or anti-fracking – but what was happening in their town or their township or their borough. We were finding that there wasn’t a lot of advice and a lot of information from the state.”
So they put out a call to colleagues for a workshop on the impacts of fracking from the perspective of local government. It became the basis for the book: When Fracking Comes to Town: Governance, Planning, and Economic Impacts of the US Shale Boom. The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple spoke with Deitrick about some of the themes in the book.
LISTEN to the interview:
[The interview has been edited for clarity.]
Kara Holsopple: The first chapter of the book looks at the notion that governance around the fracking boom was lacking, like the Gold Rush in the 1800s – it was kind of like the Wild West. But the authors conclude that wasn’t so. Why is that?
Sabina Deitrick: Their view was that it wasn’t quite the Wild West because there were some other things that were going on, and maybe it’s a good metaphor to start with, and it’s what things look like immediately.
A lot of our resource towns, and this is outside of that chapter, but in other chapters, we have places in the Marcellus shale that had energy resource extraction for a couple of centuries. A lot of those communities had gone through different kinds of periods of resource extraction – what’s called the resource curse or resource conflict. You get the boom and then you get the bust. So that’s not the Wild West. A lot of them knew that.
“That boom was happening, but there are ways that public officials could address parts of the boom so that it didn’t create the most deleterious effects of the bust.”
We also have communities that are written about in our book that are new to this industry, but their public officials were able to partner in different ways with experts around their area to anticipate some of those impacts. That boom was happening, but there are ways that public officials could address parts of the boom so that it didn’t create the most deleterious effects of the bust.
Kara Holsopple: Can you give an example of that?
Deitrick: Yes, our chapter on Bradford County, which is in the northern tier. Our authors Adelyn Hall and Carla Chifos from Cincinnati looked at the kinds of partnerships in that community. It’s a small county in Pennsylvania. It doesn’t have a history of resource extraction, and they really understood the need for workforce training.
There were ways of partnering with existing programs [so] that workforce could be brought into the kinds of things to help their county not suffer what we all know comes with any energy boom or bust.
We also have another chapter by Erik Pages, who’s at EntreWorks [Consulting] in Virginia, near DC. With his colleagues, they looked at northeastern Pennsylvania and the kinds of things that can come from ties to the supply chain of natural gas resource extraction. They also looked at the kinds of programs that were already going on that could be worked through to link industries and workforce development.
Much of the areas where fracking has occurred in the Marcellus shale and the Utica shale are in communities that have had economic distress. So creating opportunities was one of the parts we looked at — the economic impacts, not the pure job numbers, but what kind of opportunities can come from connecting to the different parts of natural resource and natural gas extraction.
Holsopple: That could maybe in some ways outlive the boom and bust cycle?
Deitrick: Absolutely. These are ways to temper the boom-bust cycle. If everybody’s working constructing drill pads, they’re not going to be working constructing drill pads for long.
If they’re working on some kinds of machinery that are used not just in the particular pads being constructed in the Marcellus shale, but in the industry globally, and they can work in those kinds of companies, that gives an area longer-term employment prospects.
Holsopple: I was interested in your chapter about building capacity in local planning and local governments to sort of deal with this industry that’s so rich – which seems so huge – and where states aren’t providing a lot of guidance. Can you talk a little about that? You mention Potter Township, which is where the Shell ethane cracker is being built – this gigantic petrochemical plant?
Deitrick: Let me give a big shout-out to Rebecca Matsco, my co-author. She’s the head of the board of supervisors there. Potter Township was hit with a sledgehammer. Then-Governor Tom Corbett announced that the Shell ethane cracker plant was coming to Potter Township. No one bothered to tell the local officials; they learned the same way anybody else following the news that day learned.
In many ways for small communities in western Pennsylvania – and we are filled with small communities – folks are township supervisors, they’re on boards, they’re on the planning commission. They’re all volunteers. They have to learn on the fly oftentimes. Public administration theory looks at capacity, and planning theory [looks] at capacity, in terms of numbers and money – how big your budget is, how many resources you have, how many experts you have on the payroll.
“[D]espite the known risks and negative impacts on health and environment…for local officials, bringing outside money into their communities for many of them is one of the most important reasons for fracking.”
What Potter Township was able to do was create their own set of resources outside of the formal capacity of their government by creating new capacity with volunteers, with partnerships with experts who wanted to help them out to give them the advice to learn how to negotiate this process. They did it themselves, and they’ve expanded both their capacity and their capabilities.
It’s a community that’s used to chemical manufacturing. There was the zinc plant, Horsehead, that closed down. That’s where Shell went. So it wasn’t a community that was ready to try to ban this entity from coming in. They knew they probably had no chance.
But it was a community that learned to use its resources and expand its existing capacity to embrace the partnerships that came with that to gain more on the environmental side, to gain on resources, to improve other parts of their infrastructure, and improve their quality of life that was going to be affected quite mightily by the Shell plant.
Holsopple: So what are some of the recommendations at the end of the book for communities as they continue to live with the ongoing operations of the natural gas industry?
Deitrick: I think a couple of chapters did summarize for folks who are against fracking, it’s good to talk to your local elected officials. They may be much more pro-fracking than a lot of other folks because of simple things like revenue streams or what one of our authors referred to as PIMBY – please in my backyard.
“For places to mitigate the worst of the downside of [fracking]…some new coalitions [can be] formed in working with communities that are already successful in mitigating the worst effects of the boom-bust cycle.”
There are still many places looking to have the industry, looking to have resource extraction, and looking to have natural gas wells being drilled. PIMBY was powerful in local official narratives with fracking and in Marcellus shale communities, so that part of community identity and community narrative is very important for folks to recognize.
They found that – and this is a chapter by Pam Mischen and Joe Palka and their set of surveys on local elected officials – despite the known risks and negative impacts on health and environment, as we all well know and has been very well documented – for local officials, bringing outside money into their communities for many of them is one of the most important reasons for fracking.
And again, many of these communities have suffered economic devastation, whether it was from manufacturing decline and deindustrialization, the ending of entire industries, machine tools, steel, iron and so forth. They’re happy to have new money coming in, and that’s a big part of it.
I think that our conclusions are really for folks to recognize that for many opponents of fracking, the health side and the environment side should be enough for them to think about how other places might want to ban fracking. But thinking about local officials, thinking about communities, thinking about revenue streams, and thinking about how that community is trying to promote quality of life becomes important.
For places to mitigate the worst of the downside of these is important, and that’s where I think there can be some new coalitions formed in working with communities that are already successful in mitigating the worst effects of the boom-bust cycle.
That might be a place for a lot of folks to start or for other places that aren’t quite as advanced on capacity building. In that way, through peer-to-peer learning and through things that local communities, particularly in Marcellus, learned through those kinds of interactions and that didn’t come from state officials.
Sabina Deitrick is an associate professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. She’s co-director of the Urban and Regional Program at the University Center for Social and Urban Research, and she co-edited the book When Fracking Comes to Town: Governance, Planning and Economic Impacts of the US Shale Boom [Cornell University Press.]