The Extraction Syndrome (Part 3 of 3.)
Commentary by S. Tom Bond, Resident Farmer, Lewis County, WV
In my the first article of this series I pointed out that the shale drilling industry and its Wall Street backers are benefitting from a body of law built up over a century or more by the oil and gas industry to extract from land owners as much beyond their immediate drilling objectives as possible.
In the previous article I pointed out the present “owner” of the land is simply the current tenant of long series, who is given rights because historically, operation of the land is most efficient if the tenant has an intense interest in it. Real loss by destruction of productive capacity is sustained by the public.
In this third and final article of the series. I hope to show the present condition of West Virginia is largely due to the dependence on resource extraction, and large areas of Pennsylvanian and adjoining states are condemned to follow.
The vast wealth of coal, oil and gas, timber and to a lesser degree various clays for ceramics and sandstone for glass originally found in West Virginia is often noted, along with the low economic, educational and health status of the state. How often have we heard “If mineral extraction made a state rich, West Virginia would be the richest state in the Union.”
The reason is that extraction provides dull, routine jobs which do not require or encourage education. In the past huge numbers of people have lived in virtual bondage to serve these industries. Their economic status was so poor, their leisure so limited, and they were so unhealthy they could not escape and were largely unaware of the world around them beyond the job. Even when unions came into existence, and the physical and safety concerns were met, the experience provided no route out for parents or their children. Like slavery in the old days, the labor of many provided opulence for a few, who chose to live elsewhere. Few left these industries in any way other than by dying.
There were a lot of these jobs in Pennsylvania and other surrounding states, too, but they also had other work. Work in the steel mills provided a step up. Greater skills were needed and the pay was better. Manufacturing and other value added industries were another step up. More jobs requiring education were provided, at each step. Schools were better funded, connections to the outside world were better.
Jobs provided by the construction phase of shale drilling are better paid, ignoring the absence of safety oversight, the long hours and often tough outdoor nature of the work. Below zero to 100 degrees in the shade, shale drilling goes on. Truck drivers hauling water are paid by the trip, which may be more productive, but increases stress and encourages “cowboy” driving. These are young, tough men’s jobs. Sometimes people work 20 hours a day and fall asleep at the wheel. Some workers live on the well pad. Good pay, but not good work.
When the construction phase is past the jobs become routine, more local people are hired and the “extraction syndrome” begins again, the worse for the rush and high hopes. Wages are minimal. chances for advancement are limited, little education beyond following orders are needed.
What is the effect on politics of a state caught in the “extraction syndrome?” Extreme, unreasoning loyalty to the extraction industry is the vogue. Comments by West Virginia’s governor and congressional delegation concerning coal reflects this loyalty, rather than reasonable assessments based on the reduced thickness and difficult recovery of the remaining coal and it’s health effects when burned. The world has moved on, but political support comes from coal and other kinds of extraction, so this along with extraction’s past prominence, directs their thinking.
Candidate efforts to get elected are directed toward people who have a rather crude understanding of the world today. Laws may be expected to come into existence based on industry loyalty, rather than an understanding of such things as “permissible exposure levels,” exhaustion of easy coal, and “externalized costs.” In a depressed economy party loyalty figures large and the “spoils system,” which rewards winners with jobs to hand out.
West Virginia has been in the extraction syndrome almost from the first. It promises big bucks, but delivery is to a few, well chosen people. It involves work that doesn’t allow people to grow in understanding, and the near impossibility of educating one’s children. Among it’s characteristics is the largely uncompensated sacrifice of continuing surface assets of the state. A sense of powerlessness of people to meet corporate challenges results. And so do frustration and willingness to move elsewhere.
Pennsylvania and other states will not be dragged completely down, because they have other non-extraction business. But tourist business, forestry business, hunting and fishing resources, farming and the largely unrecognized retirement industry will go down, down, down as shale drilling goes on. All Appalachia, and many other parts of America will become a petroleum “rust belt.”
See also the web-site for the West Virginia Environmental Council for updates on the activities in the WV State Legislature.