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Study Researches Social Impacts of Shale Development in Appalachia

Contributed by Samantha Green

A 2018 article published in The Extractive Industries and Society reviewed literature from the last decade (2008-2018) researching the impacts of shale activity in the Marcellus and Utica plays, resulting in a number of social science findings of value to Pennsylvania lawmakers.

Social impact findings from a variety of studies over the decade demonstrated concern among residents for the negative impacts of shale development. Top concerns among surveyed residents were those of crime, traffic, and safety. Research supports these concerns--two studies found that law enforcement agencies in areas experiencing the highest shale activity had been stretched thin by increased traffic and crime monitoring, while another study pointed to an increase in roadway crashes in the years 2010-2011 in the high-well volume Northern Tier of Pennsylvania.

Health impact findings from the decade found a high frequency of residents reporting stress as a negative health impact experienced as a result of shale activity. Further, another study conducted in Washington County, Pennsylvania found that skin conditions and upper respiratory conditions were more likely to be reported in areas closer to gas wells than those further away. Hospitalization numbers from another study support these self-reported findings--hospitalizations for respiratory conditions increased in counties with the most wells.

The economic impact for residents demonstrated a fair amount of inequality across skill, income, and gender lines. One study asserted that employment benefit for local residents is minimal and temporary, as most job opportunities from development go to those living outside of the local communities. Locals who do benefit from shale-related employment tended to be young males, largely those with skills and qualifications, such as commercial drivers licenses or vocational training. Among landowners profiting from leasing, one study found that about half of the money earned from leasing will go to the top 10% of local landowners while the bottom 70% of landowners will collectively receive less than 3% of that income. Additionally disadvantaging to lower-income residents, another study found that in-migration of workers tightened rental markets and outpriced many local renters. Due to such findings, the authors of this study point out that more research is needed to examine how shale activity may further exacerbate existing inequality across socioeconomic lines.

Researchers reviewed literature focused on three key geographic areas: Pennsylvania as a centerpiece of the Marcellus Shale Play, West Virginia and Ohio as states with histories of extractive industries, and New York as a state with shale potential that was met with government resistance. Research focusing on West Virginia and Ohio found support for legacy impacts on perceptions of shale development. Authors of this review conducted interviews among residents in four Ohio counties, ranging in levels of current and projected shale and coal activity. Overall, interviews largely demonstrated moderate to positive attitudes towards future shale development. Even in counties with extensive histories of coal development, where residents interviewed spoke definitively about the negative health and community impacts of coal, most respondents felt positive about future extraction efforts. Researchers state that many in the region have developed a strong identity as “coal country,” despite these known negative impacts. New York serves as a stark contrast to the other areas of focus. State laws put a moratorium on industry activity in 2010, and in 2014, shale development was banned fully statewide. Despite clear differences in state political affiliations, research from the decade fails to define a clear root cause of the different paths the states took towards shale development.

This review of the decade’s literature provides valuable insight into what impacts research has explored thus far and what remains to be investigated. Addressing those negative impacts, real and perceived, revealed by research, can help lawmakers address the concerns of the local public and gain community support. Looking at examples of other states in the region provides valuable insight into potential outcomes and roadblocks.

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