The government of Wetzel County, W.Va., has struggled through much of the past 30 years. The county’s population has steadily declined since 1980, when manufacturing companies and coal mining began shedding jobs and relocating. The county’s unemployment rate has been consistently higher than the national and West Virginia average, and hovered above 10 percent through most of 2014 (it is currently 9.3 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics).
Wetzel County select revenues.
Over the last five years, however, Wetzel County has seen a substantial increase in oil and gas activity due to companies producing natural gas from the Marcellus shale. As a result, local government finances have benefited sizably. Allocations from the state’s gas and oil severance tax have increased rapidly, more than making up for declines in allocations from the state’s coal severance tax. What’s more, increased revenues from a variety of other sources such as property and sales taxes have driven up total government revenues by more than 50 percent since 2008.
These revenues have enabled the county government to make substantial contributions to services that support those in poverty, such as local food pantries and health clinics. The county has also upgraded its own services, adding 24/7 emergency services to cover the entire county for the first time, and making long-needed upgrades to the county courthouse.
The Wetzel County Courthouse in New Martinsville, W.Va.
However, Marcellus Shale development has not solved some of the county’s long-term challenges. Unemployment has remained stubbornly high despite increased employment from the oil and gas sector, as many gas and oil workers travel from Texas or Oklahoma to work in the Marcellus region. While some of that workforce has relocated to other West Virginia counties, Wetzel County has not benefited from any substantial increase in population, and local workforce development efforts have not met with large-scale success. County commissioners hope that investors will choose Wetzel County from among many in the region that hope to host a multibillion-dollar ethane cracker, which would generate substantial employment opportunities.
In addition, the industry’s heavy truck traffic has caused major damage to many of the county’s winding, narrow roads. This issue does not directly affect county finances, because the state government maintains the rural road networks in West Virginia, but it does create challenges for residents. In addition, counties with poor infrastructure may be less likely to attract large investments such as the hoped-for ethane cracker.
Overall, the county commissioners describe Marcellus Shale development as very beneficial for Wetzel County government finances. But they continue to hope for a greater impact on employment and some improvement in local road conditions.
This research was carried out at the Duke University Energy Initiative with support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.