A survey just released by Ohio University's Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs on views of shale oil-and-gas development in eastern Ohio counties seems to show that—among elected officials, at least—drilling and related activities in this region are seen as having mainly positive economic effects, with minimal downside in the form of environmental and public safety impacts.
Scott Miller, director of OU's Consortium for Energy, Economics and the Environment (CE3), told reporters during an online news conference Monday that the main impetus of the survey was to assess "what local officials are feeling about this shale boom that is occurring in our communities."
Miller stressed that the survey is essentially a snapshot opinion poll of a selected population, and is in no way the final word on the issue.
"(This is) the first of what we hope will be a number of surveys," he said. "We plan to study how these perceptions change as the Ohio shale play matures."
Strictly speaking, the survey seems to be a poll not of opinions so much as perceptions. Local officials (mayors, township trustees and county commissioners) in 17 eastern Ohio counties (not including Athens) were asked to report on what shale-related activities they believe are going on in their jurisdictions, and on what impact, if any, these activities are having on their service area's economy, environment and quality of life.
Broadly speaking, the 191 respondents - from Belmont, Carroll, Columbiana, Coshocton, Guernsey, Harrison, Holmes, Jefferson, Mahoning, Monroe, Muskingum, Noble, Portage, Stark, Trumbull, Tuscarawas and Washington counties - reported that shale development seems to be giving their local economies a boost, without wreaking much obvious damage on the environment or public safety.
Of the respondents included in the survey (some had to be eliminated because they did not answer a crucial first question about the extent of shale activity in their area), 61.4 percent reported generally positive impacts from shale development; 25.7 saw no change; and only 7.8 saw the impacts as generally negative.
An industry group was quick to tout the survey results as showing the benign and valuable nature of shale drilling.
"This survey continues to confirm that communities all across eastern Ohio have seen the dramatic improvement to their quality of life in large part due to shale development," said Mike Chadsey, director of public relations for the Ohio Oil & Gas Association, in an emailed response to a request for comment. "Sales tax collections are up, restaurants are busy and employment continues to rise, so it's not surprising to see that so many local officials see the positive benefits. Natural gas development is not perfect but it is not the evil some have tried to make it out to be either, and this report shows that very clearly."
A member of a local organization opposed to hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas in the area discounted the survey's findings as wholly predictable, given their source.
"The Voinovich School has shown its clear bias toward this ecocidal industry," alleged Heather Cantino, of the Athens County Fracking Action Network, in an emailed comment. "Its shale conference last summer gave a platform solely to industry-funded perspectives and no voice to area citizens concerned about the industry. The climate impacts of fracked gas and oil were not addressed… The Voinovich School's allegiance is clear."
Cantino went on to dispute the notion that fracking and its related activities are either economically desirable or environmentally safe.
"The long-term economics of fracked gas and oil are clear: Fracking ruins local economies," she wrote. "So-called economic studies that supposedly say otherwise have all been revealed to either be statistically flawed or misrepresented."
She cited an assessment by the Ohio People's Oil and Gas Collaborative, which claims that from 2003 to 2013, about 80 new jobs per year were created in Ohio in the entire mining and logging sector, which includes oil-and-gas jobs - though the group says industry sources were predicting some 200,000 new shale-related jobs by 2014.
In the Voinovich School survey, however, a majority of respondents reported that they believed shale activities of various kinds - including horizontal drilling, injection well construction, pipeline construction, creation of supply yards and staging areas, worker camps, and refinery development - were pushing up employment; increasing property values (and with them, housing and rental costs); boosting business for restaurants, hotels and retailers; hiking local tax revenues; and spurring the attraction or creation of new businesses serving the industry.
On the downside, a large majority responded that shale activities were also adding to traffic levels and increasing the need for public road and bridge maintenance. Significant numbers (from 31 to 71 percent, depending on the type of activity) reported increased noise pollution.
Not many respondents detected significant environmental impacts. Fewer than 18 percent reported negative effects on storm water runoff, erosion and light pollution.
The biggest responses in this category were related to demand for water and "water disposal" - probably a euphemism for frack-waste disposal. Over 48 percent of respondents said shale activity had driven up water demand, and almost 26 percent saw impacts in the area of water disposal.
Some opponents of fracking have warned that the influx of many itinerant, mostly male workers into an area can lead to increased crime problems. The respondents to the Voinovich School survey didn't see this happening. Asked about shale-driven increases in alcohol-related offenses, drug-related offenses, assaults, property theft and prostitution, in each case fewer than 14 percent of respondents said shale activity was adding to these problems.
Miller called these public-safety results "an interesting finding." He also acknowledged that "the environmental concerns may be a lagging indicator" - in other words, that such impacts may take longer to show themselves than, say, effects on crime rates.