Marcellus Shale Gas Costs and Benefits
Guest Editorial by Steve Conlon and Bill Hughes, Wetzel Chronicle, February 13, 2013
There is an unprecedented effort by the natural gas industry to persuade citizens to only consider the benefits gas drilling might bring to this area. A recent opinion piece was provided by the West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association, (WVONGA) extolling the potential economic benefits to WV and the region resulting from the current Marcellus gas activity. The article prophesied extensive future jobs and economic growth. Those benefits come with real costs. Industrial operations in a rural setting also cause friction. The Wetzel County Action Group (WCAG) has always been interested in documenting, reporting, and discussing those changes.
WVONGA represents the largest of the gas corporations. Two basic premises of WCAG are that no large for profit corporation ever volunteers for any regulations or restrictions on its commercial activity and they all need some community limits and guidance. Corporations tend to assume they know best and operate best with no governmental oversight. Chesapeake recently pled guilty in federal court to three criminal counts for removing a waterfall that was in the way and impeding its progress. It is possible that can be considered an aberration and not normal business practice. However it might also indicate some need for regulations and enforcement.
WVONGA‘s main complaint is that there is too much unjustified overreach by government. “Leave us alone and we’ll take care of it”, is their plea. We are told that greatly reducing or better yet eliminating energy industry regulatory requirements is all that is needed to guarantee jobs and financial good fortune. They claim that regulations are the problem.
Yet, it was the bad behavior of many gas operators which has inarguably driven the push for enforcement and regulations. The WV Marcellus Bill of Dec. 2011 did not evolve from exemplary gas guy behavior. It was driven by hundreds of complaints, pictures, emails and phone calls. They caused their own problems.
The numerous aspects to this development have unequal effect and visibility on those residing in or near it. Many residents have seen and complained about recurring problems such as: mud and dust on roads; blocked roads; dangerous big trucks on narrow roads; diesel fumes; air, noise, water and light pollution; erosion and sedimentation in streams; surface water contamination and fresh water consumption. The transition from Wild and Wonderful to being plumbed for natural gas extraction depresses real estate values. Banks worry about lending on some homes.
Those living very close to drilling operations experience: blocked driveways, broken utility lines, truck accidents; permanent loss of personal, timber and farm property; slips of ponds and pads.
Residents’ complaints to these many community costs quickly resulted in an extensive, multi media campaign by the gas corps to convince the local communities that they really intend to be good neighbors. From full page color newspaper ads to select highly visible and published donations to non-profit good causes and some law enforcements groups. Efforts were even made to hire off-duty sheriff deputies and municipal patrolman to help with anticipated, growing security concerns.
Contributions bought influence and tried to convince some of the skeptical residents that the gas corps were actually good neighbors no matter what you might observe and hear in an active exploration and production areas of the county.
The flagrant actions by many gas companies just begged for more regulations. It is a given that state legislators do not go around looking for more headaches. By definition they are a reactive group, hopefully responding correctly to the biggest problems and expressed needs of the citizens of the state. If more regulation came out of Charleston and Harrisburg it is because the residents demanded it. The highly visible actions of the gas corps were judged objectionable by many citizens and they demanded more oversight.
Do we know of any other business operating in any of the surrounding counties that have to spend millions of public relations dollars in an attempt to convince us that they are good neighbors? They would have us believe that it is in our benefit to trust them implicitly and let them do as they please. Why should such a massive, full scale PR campaign be needed to get us to overlook the obvious problems?
It seems self-evident that a strong case can be made that the gas companies brought on their own problems themselves by the inappropriate, un-neighborly, discourteous, disregard for normal, accepted community standards of behavior.
However, WVONGA is still partially right. There is some possibility of a stable long term economic positive effect due to shale gas development, even with the current problems. We just need to learn to consistently do it correctly. That will take good regulations with strong enforcement. Just what WVONGA does not want.
Note: Steve Conlon and Bill Hughes are active in the Wetzel County Action Group, http://www.wcag-wv.org