Even before the most recent recession, Carroll County in rural eastern Ohio was struggling. Employment prospects were sparse and young people were fleeing for opportunities elsewhere. Then came 2011 and arrival of the shale industry, giving the local economy an injection of jobs and the attendant financial benefits an influx of new business creates.
Susy Morris via Flickr/ Creative Commons
Though shale development has changed the county’s fortunes, the transformation from ghost town to boom town has been far from smooth, according to a study released in April by nonprofit research organization Policy Matters Ohio. Months after the study was made public, there are still lingering questions about whether the cultural, environmental and public health costs of fracking outweigh the economic benefits.
“This was a region struggling for a long time, so fracking has been a shot in the arm,” said Amanda Woodrum, report author and Policy Matters researcher. “But the story does not end there.”
Influx of Cash
The Carroll County study was part of a larger effort to determine the impact of shale development in four communities in Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania. Policy Matters joined with other members of the Multi-State Shale Research Collaborative for the year-long venture.
Carroll County, which has half the state’s active fracking wells, is a decade newer to the shale energy game than its out-of-state contemporaries, said Woodrum. Still, about 95 percent of county sub-surface rights have already been bought or leased for potential use in domestic oil and gas production.
The signing bonuses that came with these land sales or leases—as high as $5,800 per acre—are being spent locally on farm property and equipment, the study says. Oil and gas companies are also purchasing supplies from businesses in Carrollton, the economic heart of the county, while company employees patronize local restaurants and bars. This activity has led to a 31 percent increase in sales tax receipts.
The inflow of cash came at a critical time for the region’s agriculture-based economy, said Carroll County commissioner Robert Wirkner.
“We had a number of farmers one step away from insolvency,” he said. “When the oil people came, the signing bonuses helped get them back on their feet.”
Increased sales tax revenues resulted in much-needed facility repairs, including a courthouse clock tower built in 1885. “We had been discussing removing the clock tower,” Wirkner said. “There was no money available to fix it.”
What About the Jobs?
General job trends in the county have been another positive indicator of economic activity, at least at first glance, Policy Matters researchers said. Unemployment is down to 8.3 percent from a recession-era high of 14 percent. However, in parsing these figures, Woodrum and her team discovered that shale gas drilling has not yet lived up to the jobs promised.
Fracking-related employment in Ohio has grown by about 3,000 jobs, less than one-tenth of one percent of the state’s total employment, said Woodrum. This number is far from Ohio Oil and Gas Associations claims that 40,000 new positions would be created by the industry.
Susy Morris via Flickr/ Creative Commons
In Carroll County, higher paying jobs related to oil and gas drilling, like construction of pipelines and processing plants, have been mostly going to out-of-state workers following their company’s drilling rig as it moves throughout the country. “Oil jobs are almost a new form of migrant labor,” said Woodrum.
The local population has picked up less lucrative jobs made available through the economic activity that fracking created. Truck driving, delivery, waitressing and cleaning positions are among the existing services that received an uptick. While a shale oil processing plant being built in a neighboring county may result in permanent local jobs,the overall demand for this type of work has still been lower than expected.
The influx of workers has meant an increased need for temporary housing. Few workers are buying property, but a hotel in Carrollton has been solidly booked for two years, while the local campgrounds are overflowing with RVs. Rental property prices have doubled, tripled and even quadrupled, squeezing out some lower-income residents who couldn’t afford to pay higher rent.
A larger concern for citizens interviewed by Policy Matters researchers was fracking’s impact on roads and traffic. Trucks filled with materials have clogged streets already unfit for heavy loads and additional traffic. Drilling companies signed maintenance agreements to share the cost of repairing damaged roads, but the upwards of 13,000 vehicles that pass through a major Carrollton intersection on busy days have been a shock to the system for the town of 3,200.
“It used to be you could shoot a cannon down Main Street at noon and not hit anything,” said county commissioner Wirkner. “The traffic now really jumps out at you.”
Susy Morris via Flickr/ Creative Commons
Residents expressed concern about chemical-laced fluids dredged up by the fracking process contaminating local drinking water. Other environmental anxieties included air and noise pollution from the flaring of gas wells and from the drilling itself. Interviewees also mentioned the risk of slurry spills related to pipeline construction and the connection between hydraulic fracturing and earthquakes.
“We heard so much (statewide) and in the media that came from a very pro-fracking point of view,” said Woodrum. “People at the local level were much more pragmatic about drilling’s benefits and costs.”
Ultimately, the report concluded that the economic benefits of fracking fall far short of what was promised and come with costs to safety, the environment and the community.
Since the processing plants and drilling rigs aren’t leaving Carroll County anytime soon, the only viable option is to maximize the benefits and minimize the costs, said Woodrum.
For starters, the report recommends a five percent severance tax to be used for industry oversight and regulation. The tax would also cover the community impacts of drilling, from cleanup of streams flowing through drilling areas to storing wastewater.
The study further suggests an additional 2.5 percent tax to be set aside in Ohio’s Advanced Energy Fund, which promotes diversification of Ohio’s energy portfolio and use of that energy locally. Better monitoring of water quality, new pollution control requirements and policies requiring local hiring for fracking-related jobs are among the other changes outlined in the report.
Enacting those recommendations won’t be easy, especially in a state where the pro- and anti-fracking camps rarely engage in fruitful conversation, said Woodrum. Even with these roadblocks, she believes it’s critical for state leaders to find clarity when it comes to the “complicated story” of Ohio’s shale gas future.
“There’s been both good and bad to shale development locally,” Woodrum said. “We need to work together to come up with some creative solutions to the problems.”
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Kevin T. Smiley
When hurricanes and other extreme storms unleash downpours like Tropical Storm Beta has been doing in the South, the floodwater doesn't always stay within the government's flood risk zones.
New research suggests that nearly twice as many properties are at risk from a 100-year flood today than the Federal Emergency Management Agency's flood maps indicate.
Flooding Outside the Zones<p>About <a href="https://furmancenter.org/files/Floodplain_PopulationBrief_12DEC2017.pdf" target="_blank">15 million</a> Americans live in FEMA's current 100-year flood zones. The designation warns them that their properties face a 1% risk of flooding in any given year. They must obtain flood insurance if they want a federally ensured loan – insurance that helps them recover from flooding.</p><p>In Greater Houston, however, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1539-6924.2012.01840.x" target="_blank">47% of claims</a> made to FEMA across three decades before Hurricane Harvey were outside of the 100-year flood zones. Harris County, recognizing that FEMA flood maps don't capture the full risk, now <a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/floodinsurance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recommends that every household</a> in Houston and the rest of the county have flood insurance.</p><p>New risk models point to a similar conclusion: Flood risk in these areas outstrips expectations in the current FEMA flood maps.</p><p>One of those models, from the <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/2020-national-flood-risk-assessment-highlights/" target="_blank">First Street Foundation</a>, estimates that the number of properties at risk in a 100-year storm is 1.7 times higher than the FEMA maps suggest. Other <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aaac65" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">researchers</a> find an even higher margin, with 2.6 to 3.1 times more people exposed to serious flooding in a 100-year storm than FEMA estimates.</p>
What FEMA’s Flood Maps Miss<p>Understanding why areas outside the 100-year flood zones are flooding more often than the FEMA maps suggest involves larger social and environmental issues. Three reasons stand out.</p><p>First, some places rely on relatively old FEMA maps that don't account for recent urbanization.</p><p>Urbanization matters because impervious surfaces – think pavement and buildings – are not effective sponges like natural landscapes can be. Moreover, the process for updating floodplain maps is locally variable and can take years to complete. Famously, New York City was updating its maps when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012 but hadn't finished, meaning flood maps in effect <a href="https://projects.propublica.org/nyc-flood/" target="_blank">were from 1983</a>. FEMA is required to assess whether updates are needed every five years, but the <a href="https://www.fema.gov/cis/nation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">majority of maps</a> <a href="https://www.oig.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/assets/2017/OIG-17-110-Sep17.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are older</a>.</p><p>Second, binary thinking can lead people to an underaccounting of risk, and that can mean communities fail to take steps that could protect a neighborhood from flooding. The logic goes: if I'm not in the 100-year floodplain, then I'm not at risk. Risk perception <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ab195a" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> backs this up. FEMA-delineated flood zones are the major factor shaping flood mitigation behaviors.</p><p>Third, the era of climate change scuttles conventional assumptions.</p><p>As the planet warms, extreme storms are becoming <a href="https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/" target="_blank">more common and severe</a>. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at a high rate, computer models suggest that the chances of a severe storm dropping 20 inches of rain on Texas in any given year will increase from about 1% at the end of the last century to 18% at the end of this one, a chance of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1716222114" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">once every 5.5 years</a>. So far, <a href="https://www.rstreet.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/195.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">FEMA hasn't taken into account the impact climate change is having</a> on extreme weather and sea level rise.</p>
Racial Disparities in Flooding Outside the Zones<p>So, who is at risk?</p><p>Years of research and evidence from storms have highlighted social inequalities in areas with a high risk of flooding. But most local governments have less understanding of the social and demographic composition of communities that experience flood impacts outside of flood zones.</p><p>In analyzing the damage from Hurricane Harvey in the Houston area, I found that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aba0fe" target="_blank">Black and Hispanic residents disproportionately experienced flooding</a> in areas beyond FEMA's 100-year flood zones.</p><p>With the majority of flooding from Hurricane Harvey occurring outside of 100-year flood zones, this meant that the overall impact of Harvey was racially unequal too.</p><p>Research into where flooding occurs in Baltimore, Chicago and Phoenix points to some of the potential causes. <a href="https://www.nap.edu/read/25381/chapter/4#16" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In Baltimore and Chicago</a>, for example, aging storm and sewer infrastructure, poor construction and insufficient efforts to mitigate flooding are part of the flooding problem in some predominantly Black neighborhoods.</p>
What Can Be Done About It<p>Better accounting for those three reasons could substantively improve risk assessments and help cities prioritize infrastructure improvements and flood mitigation projects in these at-risk neighborhoods.</p><p>For example, First Street Foundation's risk maps account for <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/flood-model-methodology_overview/" target="_blank">climate change</a> and present <a href="https://floodfactor.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ratings</a> on a scale from 1 to 10. FEMA, which works with communities to update flood maps, is <a href="https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1521054297905-ca85d066dddb84c975b165db653c9049/TMAC_2017_Annual_Report_Final508(v8)_03-12-2018.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">exploring rating systems</a>. And the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently <a href="https://www.nationalacademies.org/news/2019/03/new-report-calls-for-different-approaches-to-predict-and-understand-urban-flooding" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">called for a new generation of flood maps</a> that takes climate change into account.</p><p>Including recent urbanization in those assessments will matter too, especially in fast-growing cities like Houston, where <a href="https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1boBRyDvMFW6W" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">386 new square miles</a> of impervious surfaces were created in the last 20 years. That's greater than the land area of New York City. New construction in one area can also <a href="https://scalawagmagazine.org/2018/01/city-in-a-swamp-as-houston-booms-its-flood-problems-are-only-getting-worse/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">impact older neighborhoods downhill</a> during a flood, as some Houston communities discovered in Hurricane Harvey.</p><p>Improving risk assessments is needed not just to better prepare communities for major flood events, but also to prevent racial inequalities – in housing and beyond – from <a href="https://www.npr.org/2019/03/05/688786177/how-federal-disaster-money-favors-the-rich" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">growing</a> after the unequal impacts of disasters.</p>
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