Facing a daunting re-election year, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett has been touting his all-out support for natural gas drilling as a job creator in his state.
But economists and environmentalists are questioning his claim that the industry props up more than 200,000 Pennsylvania jobs. They say that the governor’s administration has greatly inflated the number and that it may be getting lower every day.
A new analysis by The Allentown Morning Call newspaper and published Monday indicates that growth in the industries associated with drilling in the Marcellus Shale — one of the country’s main areas for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking — fell by 29 percent from 2010 to 2013. There are now just under 30,000 that can directly be linked to the Marcellus.
Industry supporters say that the decline is a temporary fluctuation and that ancillary jobs created and supported by shale gas development — including ones in trucking, engineering and construction — boost the number to more than 200,000.
But as Corbett continues to support natural gas development in his bid for re-election, those job numbers have come under more scrutiny. Activists and economists say that while there is no doubt natural gas has contributed to the state’s economy, it is likely the practice’s impact has been exaggerated, perhaps for political gain.
“As drilling started to become more popular (in Pennsylvania) ... there’s been a desire to make the industry seem as large and important as possible,” said Mark Price, a labor economist with the Keystone Research Center, an economic think tank with ties to unions. “When we take a look at the numbers, we certainly find some employment impacts, but they’re relatively small as a whole. This is not a sector that’s going to reshape the entire economy.”
Natural gas advocates say otherwise.
A campaign commercial released by Corbett in September said Pennsylvania is becoming “one of the most critical energy suppliers on the entire planet,” largely because of natural gas development. The commercial says the industry is supporting more than 200,000 jobs, a claim Corbett has repeated many times, including earlier this month.
Travis Windle, a spokesman for the industry group Marcellus Shale Coalition, said that no one is claiming every one of those hundreds of thousands of jobs is directly related to drilling for and transporting gas but that the industry props up those jobs. And he points out that natural gas development has had other benefits for Pennsylvania, including lowering energy costs for most consumers.
But some economists say that even when including jobs that are supported by natural gas extraction, not just those in the gas industry, 200,000 is too generous an estimate.
“There are ancillary jobs being created, but they’re not as large as some people have said,” said Timothy Kelsey, an economist at Penn State.
He and others point out that many of those hundreds of thousands of jobs existed before the natural gas boom took off in Pennsylvania but the state still includes those jobs as supported by natural gas.
Both supporters and detractors of natural gas development say the number of jobs created and supported by natural gas will never be easy to pin down. Some say it’s more effective to look at how much drilling is being done at a given time, rather than how many jobs have been created or supported, in order to get a picture of how natural gas is affecting the state’s economy.
“What matters when you’re tracking employment in this sector is how much drilling is currently going on, and there’s no way to deny that there’s less than at its peak,” said Price. “The real question now is, will the jobs pick back up? And that’s a very hard question to answer.”