A new study of Appalachian natural gas production suggests that the region’s natural gas boom hasn’t kept the top gas-producing counties in the Ohio Valley from lagging behind the rest of the nation economically.
The Ohio River Valley Institute, a nonprofit think tank, released an analysis Wednesday finding that, while those counties’ rates of gross-domestic-product growth more than tripled that of the country between 2008 and 2019, their collective shares of the nation’s personal income, jobs and population all declined.
“What we’re seeing is almost the definition of the resource curse, and that is great economic growth with very little, if any, impact on local measures of prosperity,” Sean O’Leary, senior researcher at the institute, said of the report during a webinar last week that focused on the so-far unrealized dream of a petrochemical boom in Appalachia.
The report attributes much of the increase in gross domestic product — the total value of goods and services — in 22 counties in West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania to an Appalachian natural gas production boom powered by the advent of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” that exceeded high industry expectations but did not come close to bringing the number of jobs to the region expected to coincide with the boom.
Combined job growth in those 22 counties — including Doddridge, Harrison, Ohio, Ritchie, Tyler and Wetzel in West Virginia — was only 1.7% between 2008 and 2019, the report notes, questioning the economic value of the Appalachian natural gas industry to the region.
Only in Doddridge County, population 8,448, per 2019 U.S. Census Bureau data, did gains in shares of income, jobs, and population come close to matching the region’s contributions to economic production, the report found. It offered hypotheses that exporting labor and materials, lower natural gas prices than expected and lack of anticipated progress toward petrochemical and plastics manufacturing in the region are contributing to the economic stagnation in “Frackalachia.”
“This extreme disconnect between economic output and local prosperity raises the question of whether the Appalachian natural gas industry is capable of generating or even contributing to broadly shared wellbeing,” the report reads. “And, if it is not, should it continue to be the focus of local and regional economic development efforts?”
“These companies don’t have access to the same amount of cash that they used to,” said Kathy Hipple, Bard College professor of finance and former analyst at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.
Hipple noted that ExxonMobil slashed its planned 2020 capital spending by more than a third, down to $21 billion.
“And on a local level,” she said, “you’ve got an industry where they’re producing a tremendous amount of gas but are not producing profits or cash flows.
“They’re producing gas, but they haven’t figured out a way to make this into a profitable business. They’ve been cash-flow negative year in and year out.”
Gov. Jim Justice, in August 2019, established a task force to bring manufacturing opportunities to West Virginia ahead of an anticipated expansion of the petrochemical industry in Appalachia. Justice’s office said that expansion would bring billions of dollars in investments and more than 100,000 new jobs to the region.
Hipple doesn’t see that happening.
“You’ve got an industry in distress, looking for salvation and hoping that the petrochemical buildout in Appalachia might be that lifeline, and the financials do not support that contention,” Hipple said.
In an interview Wednesday, Enverus energy analyst Ashton Dirks said Appalachia is in need of greater takeaway capacity — the ability to get a product out of the area via pipelines, trucks or rails.
If the Mountain Valley Pipeline project overcomes its legal and regulatory challenges to become operational, that would help, Dirks said.
But even if the pipeline is in service by the 2021-22 heating season, the Appalachian basin faces bottlenecks as early as 2023, absent additional expansions, according to Enverus.
The Ohio River Valley Institute report concludes that policymakers should look “very critically” at proposals to assist the natural gas industry, arguing that it hasn’t proven it can provide sufficient economic benefits to the region.
“The resource curse is something that can be quantified,” O’Leary said, “and we now have quantified.”