Economic Volatility in Oil Producing Regions: Impacts and Federal Policy Options

This report analyzes the impact of “large, rapid, and unpredictable changes in local economic conditions” due to changes in the oil industry and offers guidance for how the federal government could support these communities.



Oct. 30, 2019


Daniel Raimi, Ronald Minsk, Jake Higdon, and Alan Krupnick



Reading time

2 minutes

Executive Summary

Growth in US oil production has created substantial economic and energy security benefits for the nation. Over the course of a decade, new oil production has virtually eliminated the US trade deficit in petroleum and, in 2020, the Congressional Budget Office projects that US GDP will be 0.7% higher than it would have been without shale development. However, the rise in oil output has also expanded the number of communities closely tied to swings in crude prices—the boom and bust cycles that have confounded producers since the first commercial wells were spudded in the mid-19th century.

US oil producing regions enjoy significant economic growth during boom times, boosting state and local investment, employment, and household income. This growth often comes with its own challenges—such as strains on local housing, school, and infrastructure—which are amplified by uncertainty over when, and to what extent, prices and production will fall. When oil prices drop, local and state economies can face sharp declines, and decisions or investments made during the boom period may become obsolete. This volatility creates planning challenges for both the public and private sectors, along with substantial risks for residents of oil producing regions.

In this report for Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy, the authors address whether the federal government can and should intervene to reduce the challenges associated with this volatility. In their research, the authors convened two expert workshops, reviewed the existing evidence, and analyzed a range of potential policy options. The report recommends a modest intervention: establishing a federal interagency Oil Volatility Advisory Board. The board would synthesize data on local economic, fiscal, and social conditions in producing communities. With this information, the board would play a coordinating role by connecting public and private institutions in producing regions with existing federal programs designed to manage near-term challenges and diversify local economies over the longer term. While this proposal is unlikely to eliminate all of the local challenges associated with oil price volatility, it could help smooth fluctuations, providing the basis for a higher quality of life along with more stable economic growth in producing regions.

The paper finds that:

  • The experience of booms and busts in oil producing regions is distinct from other regional economic challenges, as local businesses, governments, and residents must prepare for—and respond to—large, rapid, and unpredictable changes in local economic conditions. While the federal government has established programs to assist with long-term economic decline in some coal, military, and trade-impacted communities, no analogous program exists for supporting oil-producing communities experiencing economic volatility.
  • State governments in Texas, North Dakota, Colorado, and elsewhere have shown varying levels of interest in assisting localities manage the challenges of volatility. Where they exist, these efforts have mostly focused on managing infrastructure demand during “boom” periods. However, some states have done little to address local impacts during booms, and no states have taken major steps to support economic diversification or other efforts that could soften the local impacts of “busts.” In some states—particularly Texas—existing tax policy exacerbates, rather than smooths out, revenue volatility for local governments.
  • Several existing federal offices and programs can provide a base of knowledge to support oil-producing communities. These include the U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA), the Department of Defense’s Office of Economic Adjustment, and federal Trade Adjustment Assistance. We believe that EDA offers the clearest model to support long-term economic diversification in oil producing communities. If Congress were to fund EDA to support oil producing communities, clear guidelines would need to be established to determine eligibility criteria.
  • In the absence of new, devoted federal funding, a federal Oil Volatility Advisory Board may provide the best option to mobilize and align federal resources to meet the needs of oil producing communities. This interagency body would synthesize data to identify communities most in need of support, conduct outreach efforts to these communities, and assist them in accessing available federal resources.

This project was led by the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University SIPA. The report, originally published here, was reposted here with permission.


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