A Gamble on Shale Job Growth Fails to Pay Off for Governor Corbett, as Fracking Worries Grow Nationwide

Last Friday in Philadelphia, a small crowd gathered outside the Franklin Institute, protest signs in hand. Only a few days before, word went out that Governor Tom Corbett, one of the nation’s least popular governors, would be in Philadelphia, a city that has borne the brunt of many of Mr. Corbett’s crippling budget cuts, and protest organizers said they had mobilized fast.

Inside the museum, Mr. Corbett was speaking at a shale gas summit sponsored by the Keystone Energy Forum, and he was once again touting the benefits of the Marcellus fracking boom.

 “The shale gas industry is helping to sustain more than 240,000 jobs in every corner of our state,” Corbett said. (Many analysts say these numbers are overblown and the impact on the state’s employment has been negligible.)

The speech was textbook Corbett — unapologetic championing of the oil and gas industry, puzzlement at the mounting tide of opposition to fracking, a deep-seated faith in the good intentions of drillers and the benefits they want to bring to Pennsylvania and America.

During this speech, Mr. Corbett made no mention of one drilling services company — Minuteman Environmental Services — that he had extolled as “an American success story” a year ago in a similar speech only to see the company raided by the FBI months later.

And for all the talk about jobs and drilling, no one in the crowd asked him about the recent ranking of Pennsylvania as 49th of 50 states in terms of new job creation.

Mr. Corbett has seen plummeting support, not just in Philadelphia, but in rural areas across Pennsylvania. But even as state voters have increasingly grown disenchanted with his policies, Mr. Corbett has remained intractable.

“First thing they wanted to do was impose a tax on this new industry just as it was growing in Pennsylvania,” said Mr. Corbett, describing how his administration decided instead to charge drillers an impact fee, a move backed by the gas industry which critics have charged led to cuts to public services across the state.

“It’s pretty simple,” state Sen. Vincent Hughes, a Philadelphia Democrat, told MSNBC recently. “Governor Corbett was elected, and he immediately began cutting education funding. At the same time, he gave tax giveaways to the largest corporations in the commonwealth.”

Both in Pennsylvania and across the country, the politics surrounding shale gas and fracking are far more divided and becoming even more so by the day.

Just one day after Mr. Corbett’s Philadelphia speech, Pennsylvania’s Democratic party added a fracking moratorium to their state platform. In New York state lawmakers have grown increasingly concerned about the tens of thousands of tons of hazardous waste from fracking shipped in from states like Pennsylvania for disposal in their landfills. In Virginia, natural gas campaign finance is an issue in the state’s gubernatorial race.  In California, the Los Angeles Times editorial board recently backed a fracking moratorium in that state, saying it was “alarming how little state government has done to learn about or oversee the practice.”

Fewer and fewer parts of the country remain untouched by the boom and surrounding controversies. In seven southwestern states, including Texas and Colorado, drought conditions are found in the vast majority of counties where fracking is occurring, according to an Associated Press investigation. This has led to water-use disputes and driven some farmers to switch from growing crops to selling their water rights to energy companies. And in Illinois, Gov. Pat Quinn signed a bill that set environmental rules for fracking, under criticism from environmental groups who were pressing for a moratorium.

Oil and gas companies are increasingly acknowledging the conflicts their industry has caused. Earlier this month, Chevron Corp. Chief Executive Officer John Watson told a conference in D.C. that energy companies must confront “legitimate concerns” that gas development associated with fracking is hazardous by following tougher voluntary standards.

Even in places where drilling is put on hold, and emphasis is on caution and advance study, the impact of the shale boom is already being felt. In New York, where a moratorium on shale gas extraction has been maintained since 2010, lawmakers are eyeing the waste generated by fracking in the region. A recently-introduced bill would stop out-of-state fracking waste disposal in New York. New Jersey’s legislature passed a similar bill last year, but Governor Chris Christie vetoed it in November.

Virginia is yet another place where the impacts of the unconventional drilling boom are reverberating. A Pennsylvania driller involved in a dispute over coal bed methane gas in the state has been bankrolling Virginia’s Republican gubernatorial candidate, the Washington Post reported earlier this month. Pennsylvania-based CNX Gas, a subsidiary of Consol Energy, donated $100,000 to the campaign of Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli. Mr. Cuccinelli has recently taken heat for not revealing that a lawyer from his office was actively assisting CNX and another company, EQT, in the case.

In California, where drilling supporters say the Monterey Shale's oil could be worth $1 trillion, residents are concerned about the unknown hazards of fracking and wastewater disposal on active fault lines. Historically quake-free areas like Ohio and Oklahoma have experienced earthquakes as strong as 5.7 on the Richter scale and federal researchers have tied these quakes to the practice of injecting fracking waste underground for disposal.

Fracking in California is neither regulated nor tracked by the state’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources. A major battle is brewing over how California would regulate a potential shale boom (or the financial bust that could follow it), with talk of ballot-based voter initiatives if the state legislature fails to act soon.

Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania, where the Marcellus fracking bonanza is well underway, there are signs of a growing resistance to the industry. On Saturday, June 15, the Pennsylvania Democratic State Committee voted to add a call for a fracking moratorium “until such time as the practice can be done safely” to their party platform. The vote passed 59 percent to 41 percent, roughly the same margin by which a recent Muhlenberg College poll found Pennsylvania voters support a statewide moratorium. At a prior state Democratic party meeting, a similar proposal did not even make it to the floor for a vote.

Concern about the shale drilling industry is starting to catch up with its foremost promoters in the state that has been ground zero for the Marcellus gas rush.

Governor Corbett’s strategy of promoting drilling to foster job growth has not returned impressive results across much of the state. Though new jobs have certainly been created in the state's drilling industry, Pennsylvania’s overall unemployment rate in April was at 7.6% – meaning it was slightly higher than the national unemployment rate of 7.5% – and as of March, the state ranked 49th out of 50 states in job creation, according to data from Arizona State University.

Jobs in the energy industry – including coal mining and conventional oil and gas drilling – account for only one half of one percent of Pennsylvania’s economy.

Unsurprisingly, Mr. Corbett has performed abysmally in the polls this year. One polling company official labeled Mr. Corbett “the most endangered Governor in the country up for reelection next year.”  A poll by Franklin and Marshall College released last month found that only 25 percent of Pennsylvania voters believed Mr. Corbett deserved re-election – the lowest for a sitting governor in the 18-year history of the poll.

Only 13 percent gave him a grade of “B” or higher for job creation.

Image credit: Harrisburg via Shutterstock.