To Frack or Not to Frack? A Tale of Unequal Opportunity on the New York-Pennsylvania Border

by Marlo Lewis on May 15, 2014

in Blog

Was Pennsylvania wise to encourage hydraulic fracturing of shale gas and New York foolish to ban it, or vice versa?

Buffalo News reporter Jerry Zremski explores this question today in “Border tale of boom and bust,” the first of a three-part series.

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Zremski interviewed both experts and work-a-day people living in four northern-tier rural Pennsylvania counties and four adjacent southern-tier rural New York counties. All eight counties sit atop gas reserves in the Marcellus Shale. The article is balanced. People on both sides of the fracking issue get their say. Zremski does not belittle environmental concerns or ignore social costs (truck noise, damaged roads, crime) that can increase along with wealth in a boom town.

Nonetheless, the data he presents paint a stark contrast of growth and opportunity in Pennsylvania versus stagnation and decline in New York:

In New York’s Southern Tier, where the gas extraction method called hydraulic fracturing remains barred by a state moratorium dating back to 2008, federal labor statistics show that four contiguous gas-rich counties lost 4,945 jobs between September 2009 and September 2013.

Meanwhile, in the four counties of Pennsylvania’s Northern Tier with the most fracked gas wells, 7,978 jobs have been created, and nearly half – 3,893 – appear to be directly related to fracking.

On top of that, per capita income in those Pennsylvania counties leaped 19 percent in the four years ending last September, compared with only 9 percent in the four New York counties, a Buffalo News analysis of economic reports shows.

New York’s policy contributed to unemployment, Pennsylvania’s policy alleviated it:

Collectively, New York’s Steuben, Chemung, Tioga and Broome counties lost 2.7 percent of their jobs in the four-year period that ended last September, according to data compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Meanwhile, the most heavily fracked counties in northeastern Pennsylvania – Tioga, Lycoming, Bradford and Susquehanna – saw the number of jobs increase 8.6 percent. In those New York counties in February, the unemployment rate ranged from a low of 8.2 percent in Broome County to a high of 9.1 percent in Steuben County.

In contrast, unemployment fell under 7.5 percent in three of the four counties studied in Pennsylvania.

The human story behind those numbers is poignant:

  • New York’s fracking moratorium forced Norse Energy, a small firm with 70 employees, into bankruptcy. For five years the company shelled out a quarter-million dollars a month in lease payments without being allowed to produce any gas or revenue from its potential drilling sites.
  • In Steuben County, New York, organic farmer Neil Vitale, beset by “high taxes and a regulation-happy state government,” had to sell off almost 30% of his land “to stay afloat – and it wouldn’t have happened, he said, if the state had let him cash in on the riches buried thousands of feet beneath his property.” Vitale told Zremski: “I probably have millions of dollars of natural gas under my feet here, and I have to heat my house with wood.”
  • Meanwhile, on the Pennsylvania side of the border, farmer Jim Van Blarcom has achieved financial independence: “There, the Pennsylvania state government permits Van Blarcom to sell his mineral rights and enjoy a windfall that has allowed him to expand his farm fivefold since 2009.”

What makes the article memorable, though, is an interactive map showing how different fracking policies produce dramatically different economic results in communities sharing the same geography and natural resource base.



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