The local economic impact of the “fracking boom” in Ohio

An ACORN Project completed by University of Washington graduate students Logan Arnold (Master’s Student, Quantitative Ecology and Resource Management) and Tyler Cox (PhD Student, Atmospheric Sciences) in collaboration with the Ohio River Valley Institute

Technological advancements in the last decade have allowed companies to profit off of the shale gas reserves underlying portions of the U.S. – the so-called “Fracking Boom.” Ohio, in particular, has seen an enormous surge in natural gas production since 2013. Data from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources indicates that production has surpassed $6 billion in value in the past few years. The vast majority (95%) of this surge has been concentrated in just seven southeast/south-central Ohio counties: Belmont, Carroll, Harrison, Jefferson, Monroe, Noble, and Guernsey. While gas production has skyrocketed, it remains an open question what the Fracking Boom has meant for the states, counties, and towns most heavily connected to it. Our project, a collaboration with the Ohio River Valley Institute, explored how Ohio counties with and without major natural gas production have fared economically over the past decade in an attempt to understand the Fracking Boom’s economic impact in communities. To answer this question, we analyzed county-level economic indicators such as GDP, unemployment levels, and tax revenues, as well as other sociopolitical variables such as population growth in Ohio, comparing the seven fracking counties to other counties in the state.

Percent change in total jobs since 2001 for various geographic areas in Ohio. The Fracking Boom in Ohio started in earnest around 2013. Data comes from the Bureau of Labor Statistics Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages.

The Great Depression brought significant job losses to all of Ohio. Since then, the number of jobs has generally increased, but there are stark regional differences within Ohio. After an initial increase in jobs from 2012 to 2014 in fracking counties, coinciding with the initial surge in natural gas production, jobs in these counties have decreased since 2014 – a characteristic of the extractive, boom-and-bust nature of fossil fuel production. For comparison, jobs in the state’s other counties increased over the same time frame. Both unemployment rates and poverty rates were highest in fracking counties throughout the study period. On the other hand, total GDP in fracking counties grew at a much higher rate than Ohio’s non-fracking counties. Closer inspection revealed that this growth was driven by an increase in mining GDP specifically, and that there was minimal difference in non-mining GDP between fracking and non-fracking counties. Therefore, there is a clear disconnect between total GDP growth associated with the Fracking Boom and other economic factors that influence individual well-being. 

Percent change in real GDP from previous year for various geographic areas in Ohio. The Fracking Boom in Ohio started in earnest around 2013. Data comes from the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

This disconnect between GDP and other economic indicators is a novel insight that our community partner, the Ohio River Valley Institute, was eager to learn. Our collaborators believe this result to be indicative of the fact that the natural gas industry, as it currently operates in Ohio, is not an engine of sustained economic growth. In other words, Ohio’s seven fracking counties received a bad economic deal from fracking companies, independent of negative environmental outcomes that result from natural gas extraction, production, and consumption. The Ohio River Valley Institute published its Frackalachia Report earlier this year, and a follow-up is currently being written. Our novel finding is being incorporated into this upcoming report, and the Ohio River Valley Institute is hopeful that it will help persuade communities in Ohio that being “pro-fracking” may not yield the desired economic results that the industry purports.

ACORN projects are a new PCC initiative that aim to both support community goals and enable students to enrich their research experience, broaden their networks, and apply quantitative, analytical, and communication skills beyond the boundaries of their primary academic focus. A central mission of ACORN is to support existing community priorities and concerns, rather than coming to each community with our own list of project ideas. Over the last several months, Logan and Tyler met regularly with several collaborators at the Ohio River Valley Institute to learn about the Ohio River Valley region and get guidance and support on what data analysis would be most useful and informative for these communities.

Tyler was excited to participate in this project for the opportunity to expand his data collection and analysis skills, and to gain a better understanding of the Ohio River Valley region. The Fracking Boom of the last decade has frequently put the region in the news, but Tyler lacked context about what that boom had meant for residents of the area. Most of Tyler’s research involves idealized computer modeling to better understand how heat moves around in the atmosphere, and this project provided an opportunity to use his data analysis skills to explore a topic separate from his core research and more directly related to the everyday lives of people.

Logan, a native of Marietta, Ohio, joined this project because he was eager to learn more about the impact of an industry that has drastically changed the landscape of his home region in the last decade. Logan believes that this project has equipped him with the knowledge to have thoughtful discussion about the natural gas industry’s true impact on the economic and social well-being of individuals in communities quite similar to his hometown. He was also happy to continue refining his data collection, analysis, and visualization skills through a project quite different from his thesis research on heat-related health outcomes. 

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