Each year, more and more studies from environmental groups show how natural-gas drilling, also called fracking, is harming the environment. Whether it’s contaminating drinking water or spewing methane into the air, environmental activists say it’s becoming harder to defend fracking from an environmental point of view.
But despite environmental concerns, proponents of natural gas have always had a strong motivation to keep drilling: jobs. Pennsylvania House Speaker Mike Turzai (R-Marshall) is a champion of the natural-gas industry and he said in a 2015 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article that the fracking industry is “creating work for steel manufacturers, engineering firms and refineries.”
Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald has also been supportive of fracking and believes it can help create jobs. In 2014, when the county allowed fracking on public land near the airport, he told KDKA that money generated from natural-gas drilling can “create jobs in this part of the county.”
The Pittsburgh region, particularly its rural areas, has struggled with high unemployment for decades. In December 2017, the Pittsburgh metro area unemployment rate was 4.5 percent; the national average was 3.9 percent. And in more rural areas like Fayette and Armstrong counties, December’s unemployment rates were significantly higher — 6.6 percent and 5.7 percent respectively.
According to figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, from 2007 to 2012, Pennsylvania added more than 15,000 jobs in the oil and gas industry, with a large chunk of those concentrated in the Pittsburgh region. During this same time period, the Pittsburgh region’s overall employment also increased; 2012 was the first year in more than a decade that the region saw its population grow instead of shrink.
But tying employment growth to increased natural gas production in the Pittsburgh region could be seen as a bit of a leap. There are many factors that can lead to growth in some gas-related industries, including job losses in other areas. Natural gas is a direct competitor to other energy industries in the region, and its growth has already contributed to job losses at coal mines and power plants. And even though natural-gas production has drastically increased over the past few years, the gas-drilling job figures aren’t really following suit.
But, natural gas proponents say job growth is happening in ancillary fields, which more than easily offsets the lack of robust growth at drilling pads. Environmentalists believe fracking is not a sustainable enough industry to deserve such broad support. They say energy and investment should be driven towards clean energy, like wind power. Either way, a choice between pursuing more clean-energy or continuing to back natural gas is emerging in Southwest Pennsylvania. And the decision could impact the region for decades to come.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, since 2012, natural-gas rigs in the Appalachia region, which includes Pennsylvania, Eastern Ohio and West Virginia, have seen huge growth in the amount of gas they produce. In 2012, Appalachian rigs produced about 3 million cubic feet of natural gas per day. By 2017, they were producing 15 million cubic feet of natural gas per day.
But during this same time period, drilling jobs at natural-gas wells drastically shrunk in Pennsylvania. After 2014, oil and gas jobs started to drop off; from 2015 to 2016, Pennsylvania lost more than 10,000 jobs in the sector. In the Pittsburgh region, natural-gas jobs were at 3,039 in the third quarter of 2017, according to state data. While a slight increase from the same time in 2016, this is still well below Pittsburgh’s peak natural-gas employment.
But Erica Wright, spokesperson for natural-gas industry group Marcellus Shale Coalition, notes natural gas is supporting thousands of other jobs in gas-related industries. Construction projects for pipelines, power plants and the soon-to-be-built Shell cracker plant in Beaver County have led unions to support fracking and its related industries.
“Clean and abundant American natural gas supports hundreds of thousands of good-paying Pennsylvania jobs, especially across our hard-working and talented building-trade unions,” wrote Wright in a statement to City Paper.
A 2017 study from Pittsburgh-based pro-business group McKinsey & Co. says Pennsylvania could see more than 100,000 additional jobs thanks to natural gas. The cracker plant in Beaver County is said to produce 6,000 temporary construction jobs and 600 permanent jobs. Cracker plants create plastics derived from natural gas, and proponents say plants can help create manufacturing companies across the region that will use the plastic from the cracker plant to create products.
Both the natural-gas industry and the cracker plant are backed by some of the state’s most powerful leaders. Not only do most Republican politicians in the area support more drilling, but Democrats like Fitzgerald and Gov. Tom Wolf have offered support to the cracker plant. Newly elected U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Mount Lebanon) represents heavily drilled areas in Washington and Westmoreland counties, and he campaigned on a pro-fracking stance.
“Natural gas extraction is creating and supporting a lot of good, middle-class jobs in our region, and I want more of those jobs for our people,” wrote Lamb on his campaign website.
Wright also noted that natural gas as an energy source is cleaner than coal, and its emergence has helped improve Pittsburgh’s air quality. “And as more clean-burning natural gas is safely produced and used locally to generate affordable electricity for consumers, our air quality is sharply improving, creating important public health benefits for every Pennsylvanian,” she wrote.
But Jacquelyn Bonomo, CEO of clean-energy advocacy organization PennFuture, refutes many of these claims. She says the Pennsylvania Department of Labor projects flat job growth for natural-gas employment through 2024 (which doesn’t include jobs from gas-related fields like manufacturing). Bonomo says natural gas has too many boom and bust cycles to offer steady growth in employment.
“To communities being sold a line about job growth, they are being misled,” says Bonomo.
And some of the job growth that is generated from natural gas may be offset by job losses in other sectors.
First Energy, a company that operates power plants in the region, recently declared bankruptcy. U.S. Rep. Keith Rothfus (R-Sewickley) told the Beaver County Times on April 6 that the county is in danger of losing between 1,300 and 1,400 jobs if First Energy’s coal-fired and nuclear power plants shut down. The natural-gas trade publication Natural Gas Intelligence wrote on April 2 that an abundance of natural gas in the region was cited as a reason for First Energy filing for bankruptcy.
Bonomo also notes while political leaders may support natural gas, some community groups do not. In January, a group of more than 140 Presbyterian churches in Allegheny County called for halting the cracker plant’s construction. The churches were concerned with the plant’s impact on pollution levels. Bonomo says community members across Pennsylvania have recently held protests and criticized the potential environmental impacts of the Mariner East 2 pipeline, which when completed will move natural gas from Western Pennsylvania to Eastern Pennsylvania and beyond.
A recent study from the Environmental Defense Fund says fracking wells in Pennsylvania are producing five times as much methane as previously reported by state officials. Methane warms the planet 86 times as much as carbon dioxide, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Bonomo wants Pittsburgh leaders to start putting their weight behind the production of wind energy. She says ridge tops in Pennsylvania provide plenty of room to build productive wind farms. (For example, Somerset County, in the Laurel Highlands, is already home to nine wind farms, and two more are proposed in the area.)
She says Pennsylvanians deserve good-paying jobs, and no one should “disparage people for wanting good jobs.” But she says the renewable energy sector in the state is already employing 70,000 Pennsylvanians, and Bonomo feels that number can grow.
Bonomo says Pittsburgh is forging ahead in two divergent directions. Natural-gas and petrochemical industries have backing from politicians and business leaders alike, while also attracting tech companies like Amazon. However, Bonomo notes Amazon’s commitment to achieving a 100 percent renewable-energy global infrastructure footprint. She says Pittsburgh-area leaders shouldn’t be supporting natural gas and thinks they should shift their support to renewable energy.
“I think it is the path of least resistance,” she says of supporting natural-gas. “But particularly in Western Pennsylvania, where we have the finest universities that could be working on resources for renewables. Just think of the power that could be released with progressive leadership, if only the political will was there.”
Bonomo says if Pittsburgh really wants to emerge as a tech center, local leaders need to acknowledge that supporting natural gas and petrochemicals is antithetical in attracting companies like Amazon.
“How are we going to bring [Amazon] into Western PA, where the trajectory is defined by natural gas?” says Bonomo. “That is where there is a disconnect.”