the (new) american worker

Gone Upstate: A Few Shots of Life on the Marcellus Shale

Last week, I took a long, scenic drive upstate to visit the “Valley” – a little smattering of villages on either side of the southern New York/north central Pennsylvania border. I went to get a sense for the area, one that I understood to be chronically depressed and fiercely torn over the prospect of shale gas drilling – for some, an immense resource, for others the worst possible solution to decades of economic decay. The issue is especially prevalent as Pennsylvania has already begun tapping its portion of the Marcellus Shale gas formation, resulting in a sharp uptick in state revenue – in 2009, the state and local tax revenue drawn from PA drilling projects is estimated to have grown 60 percent, from $240 million in 2008 to an estimated $400 million in 2009.

A moratorium on drilling stands in New York, as the state works through regulatory process with “no timeline,” according to DEC spokesman Yancey Roy. Many expect New York to eventually approve drilling on its stake in the Marcellus Shale, but as Pennsylvania still works out its environmental controls – five PA wells were slapped with violations last month – is shale drilling in New York really worth it? I’m writing about that now, for a feature class @ NYU – so for the time being, enjoy some images…

Towanda, PA. If this was a wider shot, you'd see cows grazing to the left. Wonder what they think of their new neighbors...

A producing well (post-drilling). A well like this could produce for up to 30 years, though most output will occur in its first 10.

These orange stakes, ribbons whipping, dot the Bradford County countryside. They are almost comically modest - if one of these spots proves to hold enough shale gas, the landowner just hit the jackpot.


Gallup: Americans Want Diverse, Economy-Focused Energy Policies
March 21, 2010, 10:49 pm
Filed under: jobs | Tags: , , ,

Gallup has run a number of polls this month that have really captured the current American sentiment on Obama’s ramped-up energy rhetoric and policy initiatives. The results demonstrate a rather conservative consciousness on energy, as in a March 13 poll where only 30% of respondents indicated support for reducing financial incentives for the oil and gas industries. In addition, 28% of respondents stated that current financial incentives for oil and gas should be maintained. Gallup condenses this information into a simple, powerful fact – 2 out of every 3 Americans believe the federal government should continue to support traditional energy sources like oil and gas. If anyone is wondering why Obama continues to pursue an “all colors of the rainbow” national energy policy – well, there you go.

A recent Gallup poll found that 53 percent of Americans favor economic growth over considerations for the environment.

The March 13 poll also showed an 11 percent tumble in the number of respondents who favor environmental protections over development of energy resources – from 58 percent in 2007 to 47 percent in 2010. Of course, the massive recession our country is still climbing out of likely influences these results. From nuclear to smart-grids, no energy proposal is complete nowadays without the requisite slogan of “jobs, jobs, jobs.” Compare this to the underemployment figure reported by Gallup this week – 20.1 percent – and it’s pretty easy to see why Americans are grasping at anything that resembles economic growth.

This realignment was also evident in another Gallup poll released last Thursday. When asked whether economic growth should be pursued, regardless of adverse environmental affects, 53 percent of respondents answered yes.

In my mind, this confirms what is often written nowadays about renewables like solar and wind – mainstream days are still a long way off. Sure, there may be huge economic potential in some of these projects – greater than the alternatives, in my opinion – but until renewable energy advocates can sell Americans on the idea that this potential exceeds the cost of reduced investment in say, natural gas or clean coal technology, then it looks like the American public will continue to support the old, the new and everything in between.

Giving Workers the Chance to Compete in Their Own Backyard
March 19, 2010, 11:57 pm
Filed under: marcellus shale, Uncategorized | Tags: ,

I’ve been doing some research lately on Marcellus Shale – the 54,000 square mile swath of thick shale that covers one of the largest motherlodes of known natural gas deposits in the United States. Years ago, the shale was too difficult to tap, but with the emergence of new drilling technology, the Marcellus Shale has now become one of the most closely-watched energy rushes.

Communities like Couldersport, PA are trying to give their own residents a chance to compete for jobs drilling Marcellus Shale.

Communities like Couldersport, PA are trying to give their own residents a chance to compete for jobs drilling the Marcellus Shale.

Much has been written in the past few years about drillers positioning themselves for a possible boom, especially of the initiation of contentious land leasing deals in the Marcellus communities. While some landowners are eager to sign off their land, they’ve drawn the ire of others who complain drillers and landowners alike haven’t adequately considered environmental effects. These stakeholders stretch as long as the shale formation itself, from upstate New York, through Pennsylvania, Ohio and finally into West Virginia.

From what I’ve read, many of the landowners who’ve agreed to drilling on their land, or are currently considering it, consider themselves just one piece of a broader mandate to breathe life into the struggling rural communities atop the Marcellus. An article I read recently quoted a New York woman who claimed to express great relief when she heard that the shale was now being tapped, not just for the potential windfall for herself and her neighbors, but for the creation of a new local economy that could create good, local jobs.

So this article caught my eye today when scanning new updates on the Marcellus Shale communities. It tells the story of Coudersport, a north-central Pennsylvania town whose population barely tops 2,000 people. The unemployment rate in Potter County, where Coudersport is located, is still higher than the national average, estimated at 10.8 percent in January. Seemingly, if towns like this one were on the fence about natural gas wells in their backyard, recent economic events have cast aside those concerns. The article describes standing room only at a recent natural gas industry job fair – where participants ranged from all ages and backgrounds. It also quoted a recent Pennsylvania study that estimates jobs in the north-central region of PA could grow by 62 percent by 2016, if the drillers are able to meet current regulatory and environmental challenges.

It is my opinion that the emerging US energy economy has the potential to change the face of American labor. Yet this article mentions one subtler point that it sometimes easy to forget –

From AP:

“Gas companies drilling wells bring in many experienced workers from out-of-state to staff Pennsylvania rigs…What in-state applicants may be lacking, though, are the proper skills. Area high schools, colleges and technical schools have started discussing how to offer training.”

I’ve written before about the need to give our human capital the skills they need to participate in our country’s energy ambitions. This article reminded me that I tend to think about this in broad strokes. Equally important, I believe, is to provide those workers who share a backyard with some of these projects with a fair chance to compete for them. I’m not suggesting preferential treatment, but rather smart planning that considers the local labor potential concurrently with planning and development.


Localized: New York Energy Economy
January 27, 2010, 8:39 pm
Filed under: New York | Tags: , ,

Wide awake New York, it’s morning.

The dawn of a new era. Where the power of Wall Street won’t be our only steam engine. Really? Well, at least that’s what the politician says.

Kevin Cahill, a Democrat who represents parts of Ulster and Duchess counties in New York State, recently made this case in a release titled “Time For A New Energy Economy In New York State.” The political aims, to be sure, are consistent with what we can expect from the larger Democratic arena in a push towards energy industries as stimulus for growth and job creation. Energy industries, let’s be clear, are not the same as environmental causes, despite the close association of some of their respective members. Some energy industries, like “clean coal,” are still understandably suspect to environmental groups. This will be a politically thorny issue, no matter how many times you say, “jobs, jobs, jobs” in the same sentence.

Still, as this blog seeks to establish, technology, innovation and the infallible American spirit must collaborate to create new energy economies. Energy is not the sole answer, but I believe it may be the best way to achieve numerous economic and sustainability goals in one fell swoop.

The smart politician knows this. Obama knew this, which is why he made a new energy economy the centerpiece of his vision for building a better America post-recession. No matter what you think of health care reform, it is clear he lost his grip on this goal, and some others, namely financial reform, while haranguing Congress to get something together already on health care.

Back to Cahill. Familiar buzz words pepper his speech, including the requisite “the race to develop and deploy clean energy solutions is going to define the 21st century global economy.” Yes, China is killing us on this one. But what else you got Cahill? And what’s in it for New York?

He calls for new legislation to organize efforts towards energy planning, a process that has been “haphazard” since the 2002 expiration of New York’s energy planning law. Ok, many people probably didn’t know this law even existed. If all politics is local, then how does this affect my backyard, my bottom line?

Cahill refers to the need for more “environmentally responsible tapping of the enormous potential of the Marcellus Shale natural gas formation,” an “indigenous” resource to New York State. Bingo. Cahill is straddling the line on the gas wars upstate, where landowners sitting on gas-rich land are squaring off against environmental critics. Energy companies are waiting on the sidelines with their checkbooks drawn. And yet despite the enormous economic potential for such projects, these communities remain bitterly divided over how to best manage a gas boom in their backyard.

The debate is not over whether the Marcellus Shale should be tapped – for enviros, natural gas is far more desirable than oil or coal – but how it will be managed and regulated. And is it any wonder that there is trepidation over effective management of municipal projects?