The economy of central Appalachia has long revolved around extractive industries: timber, coal, oil and natural gas. The jobs associated with these industries are often good paying jobs. They also can bring environmental and health issues to the region.
In this episode of Inside Appalachia, we’ll explore how an increase in natural gas development has brought challenges and concerns, both for our health and our natural environment. But for some, the jobs and economic benefits that come with this increased activity are welcome, especially as so many jobs have left our region in recent years.
Pipeline construction jobs were never expected to be permanent, but when the workers become part of the community, it is difficult to see those jobs disappear.
But haven’t we heard this before?
Legal Disputes Over Land, Health — Parallels of Coal and Natural Gas
Our associate producer Eric Douglas sat down with Ken Ward Jr., who reports for the Charleston Gazette-Mail in Charleston West Virginia. He’s been writing about the coal industry his entire career. That work has won him awards, but also drawn disdain from many in the coal industry.
Ward points out there are several similarities and differences he sees between the coal and natural gas industries and how those industries are regulated.
“If we pay attention to the history of West Virginia's relationship with coal industry and apply it to the relationship with the natural gas industry, we see places where coal jobs have vanished or are greatly diminished. We see that a lot of these places still don't have good roads, they don't have good schools,” Ward said.
Long Term Environmental and Health Impacts?
The natural gas industry is bringing well-paying jobs to communities across our region, though many of these jobs are only temporary, and many workers in the gas industry move from job site to job site, oftentimes leaving the state in search of work. Despite the economic benefits, hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, comes with a cost.
There are stories of light pollution and noise from wells, toxic waste streams, and concerns about gas drilling infringing on land-owner property rights among other things.
Julie Grant, a reporter with The Allegheny Front, spent time looking into how the natural gas industry is dividing communities in eastern Ohio. Some want the jobs, while others are concerned for their health, and the long-term effects on their air and water. Grant produced a series of stories called “Who’s Listening". This series includes a look at how increased natural gas development in Appalachia is impacting landowners, many of whom are caught up in a tangled web of legal disputes. In this episode, we’ll hear how some landowners are forced to lease their mineral rights through a process called unitization.
We’ll also hear how communities are struggling to clean up frack waste, and why some citizen groups have formed to monitor the potential health impacts of natural gas drilling near residents.
Jobs Disappear, and Communities Struggle with What’s Next
Across the country, electric utilities are phasing out coal-fired power plants. In a little more than a decade, more than 500 coal generators have closed as companies switch to cheaper natural gas and renewable energy. Thirty-four were in the Ohio Valley, in parts of Ohio, West Virginia, and Kentucky, and more will close in the coming few years.
That should mean cleaner air and less CO2 in the atmosphere. But for many communities who depend on the reliable jobs, it comes at a steep price. West Virginia Public Broadcasting reporter Brittany Patterson reports on how residents in Coshocton, Ohio are struggling to replace the jobs that were lost when two of the three remaining units at American Electric Power’s Conesville power plant shut down earlier in May.
History of Oil and Gas Industry in Appalachia
The oil and gas industry in the U.S. got its start here in Appalachia. Some of the first drilled wells on record were in West Virginia as early as 1819. The first oil producing well was in Wirt County at Burning Springs in 1859.
Today, the Marcellus and Utica Shale regions in central and northern Appalachia produce record amounts of gas, according to the United States Energy Information Administration (EIA). While coal is still king at power companies, EIA expects the amount of electricity generated in the U.S. from natural gas to rise from 34 percent in 2018 to 37 percent in 2019.
Two Major Pipeline Projects Halted
The region’s natural gas industry has expanded beyond drilling rigs. Multi-billion dollar interstate natural gas pipeline projects are under construction throughout Appalachia. If completed, they’ll transport billions of cubic feet of natural gas out of the Appalachian Basin to the East Coast and possibly to export markets beyond U.S. borders.
Conservation groups sued several of the pipeline construction companies. In December, a federal court sided with one of the groups and construction of the 600-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline, or ACP, stopped. Reporter Brittany Patterson visited one town along the pipeline route, Valley Head, West Virginia, to find out how the community has been impacted, after the pipeline workers left their area in search of jobs elsewhere.
We had help producing Inside Appalachia this week from The Allegheny Front and the Ohio Valley ReSource.
Roxy Todd is our producer. Eric Douglas is our associate producer. Our executive producer is Jesse Wright. Glynis Board edited our show this week. Our audio mixer is Patrick Stephens. You can find us online on Twitter @InAppalachia.