May 6, 2010

Christopherson to study economic impact of Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling

As the debate over the environmental safety of natural gas drilling in Pennsylvania and New York continues, one issue has received little attention: the economic impact on communities of companies developing hundreds of wells.

Susan Christopherson, the J. Thomas Clark Professor of City and Regional Planning, is studying the effects of natural gas drilling operations on the economy and infrastructure of rural communities over the Marcellus Shale rock formation, which extends from New York to Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia.

A recent $100,000 grant from the Ithaca-based Park Foundation to Christopherson will help fund her proposed $300,000 study, which will examine issues including the effects of increased gas drilling on schools, public health and safety, and transportation systems, "and the cost to communities, relative to the income to be derived from drilling," she said. The research project will be supported by several funding sources.

"The question is, 'What is going to be the cumulative effect of this kind of activity?'" says Christopherson, who specializes in economic development. "People are looking at this question from an environmental perspective, but almost no one is looking at it to assess its long-term economic effects."

Energy companies must use a procedure known as hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," to penetrate the dense rock formation. The process involves pushing water treated with chemicals into wells at high pressure to induce cracking in the surrounding rock and release the natural gas.

Pennsylvania has been issuing permits to companies that drill natural gas wells using hydraulic fracturing; in 2009, 191 wells were drilled in three counties bordering the Southern Tier and the state issued permits for 787 more wells. In New York, state officials are currently developing an environmental impact statement to assess the effects of drilling before any permits are granted.

One example of the impacts on communities where drilling will take place is the effect on road usage from increased truck traffic, Christopherson says. Trucks will need to transport water to the well pads and then move the contaminated water to disposal sites for treatment. Workers hired to drill the gas will also increase the populations of communities sitting atop the Marcellus Shale, increasing traffic on county roads.

"Someone will have to pay to ameliorate the costs, which will include road deterioration, increased noise and negative effects on air quality," she says. "The question is, who pays and how?"

Another question is the effect an increase in natural gas drilling will have on other industries in the region, such as agriculture and tourism. "We don't want to negatively affect the other industries that are important to our economy to do this," Christopherson says. "This is a region with small agricultural communities, many low-income people, limited government capacity and little land use regulation. This kind of development presents citizens and local government with major challenges."

Christopherson worries about a "boom town" effect created by the surge of companies that want to extract natural gas from the Marcellus Shale. "We have had many resource-driven booms in the U.S. like the Gold Rush, where you get lots of people coming into an area in order to extract natural resources and then leaving," she says.

Her hope is that gas drilling could create a long-term investment in the economy of the Southern Tier. "I think they could capture some economic benefit," she says, "but it has to be done very carefully. There has to be planning to protect the environment. What people rarely recognize is that good environmental planning and regulation will also produce better economic outcomes."

Sherrie Negrea is a freelance writer for the College of Architecture, Art and Planning. Chronicle staff writer Daniel Aloi contributed to this article.