A Dark Side to the Energy Boom?

A couple of new research studies on the social costs of the boom in natural gas fracking remind us of an important lesson that relates to all local economic development efforts—there’s no such thing as a free lunch.   As a regional economy grows, its infrastructure is strained, schools get crowded, and traffic gets worse.  

The same pressures are now hitting on many energy boomtowns, and social strains are emerging.  A recent North Dakota State University study, “Policing the Patch,” examines the current situation in Western North Dakota regions affected by the Bakken Shale boom.   The report is available here under the contact information of its author, Carol Archbold.  Not surprisingly, crime has skyrocketed as the boom has come to town.   In Willston, ground zero for the Bakken Shale Gas play, calls for police assistance jumped from 3,796 in 2005 to nearly 16,000 in 2011.  The study, which assesses impacts of the boom on law enforcement personnel, also finds that turnover has increased greatly and officers face more stress due to more action on the job as well as having to cope with rising cost for food, housing, and other essentials.

A study in Pennsylvania from fracking opponents, Food and Water Watch, finds similar strains in shale gas boomtowns.  Its findings show that fracking activties have brought social strains to many rural Pennsylvania communities.  These include increases in highway accidents and increases in social disorder, such as disorderly conduct arrests.

The Pennsylvania study is particularly direct in arguing that a fracking ban is the primary means of addressing these problems.   That is going a bit too far in my book, but we do need a better understanding of the full costs and benefits of the shale gas boom in the communities where drilling is happening.  Many of these communities have been exploited for resources for decades, and it’s essential that these towns gain both long-term and short-term benefits from their role in shale development efforts.   This means more attention to the immediate social strains now hitting these towns along with more attention to how shale gas development can contribute to long-term local prosperity and economic diversification efforts.

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