Energy. Environment. Economy.

Has natural gas transformed Pennsylvania’s economy?

Hydraulic fracturing has unleashed a huge amount of natural gas in Pennsylvania.The Marcellus Shale is rapidly becoming one of the most productive gas plays in the world.

The boom has brought new jobs and new wealth to the state. But like every industry, it responds to supply and demand.

Overproduction led to a glut of gas, causing companies to shift operations to different parts of the shale in search of more lucrative natural gas liquids.

Over the past five years, the ebbs and flows of the industry have meant a changing economic reality for different parts of the state.

Growth has receded

As a bartender at the Bullfrog Brewery in downtown Williamsport, Sarah Yates has watched as the industry’s changed her hometown.

“It’s good for Williamsport because it’s causing a big boom here for us,” she says. “We’ve never had this much business.”

Pennsylvania’s on track to produce roughly three trillion cubic feet of gas this year. That’s enough to supply about 10 percent of what the entire country consumes annually.

Industry-funded commercials have often depicted Williamsport’s charming downtown as an all-American place that’s been transformed by the nearby gas wells.

But if you talk to Mayor Gabriel Campana—he’ll be frank. Things have changed.

“I would say about a little over a year ago, some of the growth that was occurring has receded a bit,” he says.

A few months ago he even sold his car– a Honda Civic that runs on compressed natural gas (CNG). He had trouble finding places to fuel it up.

“I personally thought it would move a bit faster,” Campana says of the CNG industry, “I thought we would see stations on [interstate] 80 in a much faster time.”

The main reason for the slowdown of natural gas production here is simple: supply and demand. Overproduction caused the price to plummet.

But not all gas is created equal, and business has picked up elsewhere.

The dry gas around Williamsport isn’t as profitable as the wet gas found out near Pittsburgh and into Ohio and West Virginia. Wet gas naturally contains more lucrative gas liquids, like ethane– a building block for the plastics industry.

Royal Dutch Shell is looking at building a multi-billion dollar ethane cracker plant outside Pittsburgh.

The project isn’t a done deal yet, but it’s the top economic development priority for the Corbett administration.

“A significant economic driver”

Corbett’s Energy Executive, Patrick Henderson, describes the gas industry as a game-changer for Pennsylvania.

“Anytime you’re talking about a quarter-million people, at minimum, in an industry like oil and gas it’s a significant economic driver.”

To be clear, not all of those people necessarily work in oil and gas. That jobs number includes two categories: core and ancillary industries.

According to the most recent figures from the state Department of Labor and Industry**, 28,155 people work directly in oil and gas industries.

The rest (203,814 jobs) are ancillary, which means everyone who works in industries like trucking, engineering, and road construction gets counted, whether they have anything to do with gas or not.

The administration also touts the money brought in through the Act 13 impact fee and corporate business taxes since the boom began: $406 million and $1.7 billion respectively.

Henderson also points out it can be hard to quantify other ripple effects in the economy, like lower natural gas prices.

“If you can lower the cost of energy, which is a prime contributor to any business’s budget you’re going to increase your competitiveness.”

A nuanced effect

Tim Kelsey is co-director of Penn State University’s Center for Economic and Community Development. He’s been analyzing the gas boom and says the story of shale gas and Pennsylvania’s economy is nuanced.

“I think the story being told by both sides is not accurate,” says Kelsey. “People say it’s really wonderful [and] people say it’s really bad. In reality it’s between the two.”

When it comes to new wealth coming into counties where drilling is happening, Kelsey says he’s found royalties are a bigger deal than jobs– that’s the money paid to landowners who have leased their property for drilling.

In the first three years of the boom, he says state income related to royalties went up by about $1.5 billion.

But lately, a few companies have been accused of underpaying people.

Bradford County retiree Mary Jane Foelster says her monthly royalty check has dwindled, because Chesapeake Energy is charging her for the expenses it incurs processing and transporting the gas.

“I’m being cheated,” she says. “Chesapeake is doing whatever they think they can get away with. They’re pushing the line as hard as they can.”

Chesapeake is the biggest driller in the state and has been the focus widespread complaints it underpays landowners.

The company has repeatedly declined to comment about the controversy, but recently agreed to a $7.5 million deal to settle some of the allegations.

Looking long-term

Bottom line, Kelsey says what matters most is the long-term economic outlook.

The gas will be gone at some point. Will this new wealth be invested wisely? And what kind of costs, like environmental damage, is Pennsylvania incurring?

“So far economists and the state and others have been largely identifying the benefits,” says Kelsey. “There has been very little attention paid to the overall costs.”

Environmental costs include everything from concerns about air and water quality to radioactive drilling waste.

When it comes to making the gas industry pay for its impacts, an old debate is re-emerging as the race for governor heats up.

Right now companies in Pennsylvania pay a flat fee ($45,000) for every well they drill. Most of that money goes back to the communities where drilling is happening. By contrast, other states often have an overall tax on gas production.

Governor Corbett promotes the status quo, saying the fee is the best way to help communities dealing with drilling.

His leading Democratic challenger, Congresswoman Allyson Schwartz, argues it’s not enough. She wants to add a new production tax on top of the impact fee to fund various needs across the state – including education and transportation projects.


**Note: State jobs figures are from the first quarter of 2013 and are not seasonally adjusted



  • StephenCleghorn

    My comment refers also to the piece referenced in the last paragraph about where the Democratic gubernatorial candidates stand on fracking. “Leading candidate” Alyson Schwartz (or so says this report and the Democratic party elite, it appears) has said shale gas extraction is here to stay. “We want them to get that gas. The state and the nation need them to get that gas,” Schwartz has said.” “Katie” McGinty has said that shale gas extraction would contribute to PA becoming the “blue-collar Silicon Valley of the U.S.” While John Hanger does not support a moratorium, a position I will continue to oppose vigorously, he does say “hands off” to drilling in state forests and parks, and he does support a specific “moratorium” (as in “kick them out” of PA) for the bad actors in the field. A fair severance tax is the very least anyone can suggest. Other than that Schwartz and McGinty are downright boosters of shale gas. Hanger may have some redemption work to do, although his hands were somewhat tied working for Rendell, so I cannot blame him too much for ushering in the shale gas industry. He supports the idea of “tracers” in each well so that accountability for contamination can be definitively traced to the driller who caused it. He would outlaw open-air “impoundments” of drilling waste, and he would require technology to reduce emissions from compressor stations by 90%. He supports an adequately funded and scientifically rigorous public health study for people living in the gas fields. For these positions you can bet the gas industry will attempt to kneecap him. I hope he would support “test wells” throughout the major gas fields to do the sort of long-term study of contamination that the EPA is dragging its feet in doing, or walking away from. But even more than all this, Hanger’s platform for transitioning the state to renewable and clean sources of energy is far beyond what I have heard from any of the other Democratic candidates. That’s the ultimate solution and I think Hanger knows how to do that part better than anyone else in the field.

  • Daniel M. Parker

    The real benefit is using the energy and/or chemicals from gas to fuel industries and heat homes and businesses. Permanent jobs will be created as job producers choose to use the abundant gas and build their facilities. The other significant long-term benefit is weaning ourselves from unfriendly foreign sources of energy. It seems logical that having so much energy so close to so much of the nation’s population must be a true positive when considering the juxtaposition of energy and markets.

    • VAppalachia1

      Please explain, then, why the gas industry is working to build Cove Point in Maryland (and over a dozen other LNG facilities on our coasts) to export fracked gas to Asian and European markets? Your rhetoric about weaning ourselves from foreign sources of energy is now outdated and inaccurate. It’s all about the highest profits for the gas industry. They sold us a bill of goods about it being “our” gas, but we will now get to compete as the resources under our feet are sold off on the global market.

      • Rick Thomas

        Sold who ? You ? Do you have gas lease ?

        • VAppalachia1

          No, I own my mineral rights and would never lease them for shale gas extraction using the current technology which, no matter what the industry rhetoric says, has not been proven safe.

          The land agents told my neighbors, and 10s of thousands of landowners across the Marcellus that this gas would be used in America so that we did not have to import it from other nations. But the profit motive mandates export of the gas, in order for the gassers to get competitive prices for the resource on the world market.

          • Rick Thomas

            Well I do and have leased them ! And they NEVER told me it was to be used in this country ONLY ! I own gas and I am selling them my resource for the HIGHEST Price ! Its called free market. Look it up ! I have paid 100′s of thousands of dollars in TAXES and the tree huggers are yelling the state isn’t getting its fair share ! What a joke ! First thing is IT IS NOT THE STATES GAS ! It is mine underground and I have sold it and pay taxes on it. And the second thing where we have property our water wells have been seeping gas that you can light with a match LONG Before they started to Frack ! Fracking has been done over 50 years safely ! Now all of a sudden since we now have the INTERNET the tree huggers can spew out rhetoric with NO basis. And last I DO NOT BELIEVE YOU OWN ground that has gas under it. You just want to shoot off !

  • Lisa DeSantis

    Someday soon, a fresh glass of unfracked water will be worth more then the oil/gas. EXEMPT FROM THE CLEAN AIR AND CLEAN WATER ACT, since 2001. Revolution is in the air. Fight for water people, before you have to fight for water.

    • lakochin

      Pennsylvania is benefiting from shale gas production by billions of dollars in royalties and billions in wages per year but the largest benefit comes from the decline in natural gas prices caused by the increase in gas production.
      So far there is NO verified instance of the contamination of water supplies by fracking in Pennsylvania. To balance off the benefits of shale gas production such reports would have to happen daily. .

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