Blog Post

Washington, Greene Counties Adapt to Shale Development's Impact

Sep 25, 2013 | Daniel Raimi

The oil and gas industries are evident in many facets of daily life in Washington and Greene counties. Hotel parking lots are filled with heavy-duty pickup trucks, most marked with the logos of oil and gas services firms.

Waynesburg in Greene County, Pennsylvania; Destination: Washington and Greene counties in southwestern Pennsylvania

Eighteen-wheel trucks patrol the highways and smaller roads, hauling water, petroleum products and other materials to and from well sites. They appear unexpectedly around corners along the winding rural roads, many of which have recently been widened and improved by natural gas companies, and stopping for a scenic overlook could prove to be a somewhat risky decision.

While much attention regarding Marcellus shale development has focused on the rural northeastern portion of Pennsylvania, significant production from the more liquids-rich portion of the Marcellus has occurred in the southwestern portion of the state. Washington and Greene Counties in particular have seen significant Marcellus shale development in the past several years. When I visited from Sept. 16 through 19, nine drilling rigs were at work in Washington County and three were operating in Greene County.

Marcellus and other unconventional natural gas production from Washington and Greene counties, Pa., from 2011 through the first half of 2013.

Washington County lies some 30 minutes south of Pittsburgh and, although its population is lower than its peak in the 1970s, population and overall employment have grown steadily since the early 2000s. While oil and gas development makes up a relatively small share of the county’s economy, employment in oil and gas development, including support services, increased from nearly zero in 2003 to roughly 1.4 percent of total employment in 2011. Unemployment in Washington County in May 2013 was 6.8 percent, lower than the statewide average of 7.5 percent for the same month.

In more rural Greene County, employment is heavily tied to the mining sector, with roughly 20 percent of employment in coal mining. In fact, Greene County is the top coal producing county on the East Coast (several counties in Wyoming produce substantially more coal). Almost 9 percent of employment was in oil and gas in 2011, growing from almost zero in 2007. Despite a steadily declining population and a weakening national coal market, overall employment and per capita income have grown substantially over the past two decades, and Greene County’s unemployment rate was 6.3 percent in May 2013.

To gather data and learn directly from experts who have managed this new development, I arranged meetings with a variety of local officials at multiple levels of government. In Washington and Greene Counties, I interviewed county-level officials as well as local leaders in the Washington County townships of Chartiers, Cecil, and Smith; and the Greene County townships of Cumberland and Franklin. Cumberland and Chartiers townships were among the first to experience substantial Marcellus development in the mid-2000s.

A CNX wellpad in the distance near Independence, Pa. This pad was developing 10 wells.

Despite the clear signs of natural gas development in both counties, the industry does not appear to be overwhelming local governments or residents. In Washington County, where much of the region is fairly densely populated, some natural gas activity simply “blends in” with everyday commerce. But it’s impossible to miss in more rural parts of the county where roads are winding and narrow. In Greene County, rural areas also show unmistakable signs of the industry, such as staging areas for drilling operations and scores of pickup trucks with oilfield service logos, though the long history of coal extraction means that industrial mining activities and heavy truck traffic are nothing new.

Local officials generally expressed support for the new jobs, tax revenue and economic activity generated by the boom in Marcellus development. While many townships have experienced increased traffic and damage to roadways due to heavy trucking, the municipalities I visited have agreements with the companies to maintain, repair and in many cases improve those same roads.

Additionally, municipalities and counties experiencing effects from natural gas development began receiving substantial new revenue through Act 13, a statewide bill that imposes an “impact fee” on every Marcellus well drilled in the state, then redistributes much of that revenue back to where the wells are drilled. This is just one new source of revenues for local governments related to Marcellus development.

This research was carried out at the Duke University Energy Initiative with support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.