It’s no secret that energy is on almost everyone’s mind. Attention-grabbing headlines have gripped news outlets across the country this past year, alerting the public of “historic oil and gas prices” fueled by global geopolitical events and inflationary pressures.
One solution to this widespread problem, increasing drilling through tools such as fracking, a method of extracting oil and natural gas from underground rock, is similarly ubiquitous, touted as an ‘obvious’ solution to bloated prices that is underscored by economic theory and basic human logic.
Indeed, fracking’s lure of providing energy independence (a key national security issue) and alleviating supply-side pressures (a key political issue for policymakers) means the practice’s popularity transcends international borders, extending from Washington to London and beyond.
Despite fracking’s growing prominence in America’s energy portfolio—now accounting for a majority of U.S. natural gas and crude oil production—critics’ concerns over the health, environmental, and social costs of the practice reached a critical juncture in one of the leading natural gas producers in the country: Pennsylvania. Former PA Attorney General, now Governor, Josh Shapiro announced late last year an eyepopping, multimillion-dollar settlement with Coterra Energy, whose predecessor, Cabot Oil & Gas, was charged with tainting the water of Dimock, Pennsylvania residents, many of whom have spent over a decade growing accustomed to life without the luxury of safe drinking water.
A poster child for political and industry incompetence, Dimock, a rural town of around 1,200 people nestled near the border between Pennsylvania and New York, received national notoriety for its flammable tap water, which many residents and environmental activists attribute to fracking. Years of legal battles and human suffering were clouded by industry abdication of responsibility. Now, in its settlement, taking responsibility without admitting guilt, Coterra ignited a new debate on whether the benefits of fracking outweigh the costs, particularly to the local communities most acutely affected by its presence.
I recently delved into this debate for my graduate school dissertation at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. Employing established statistical methods, I explored how the fracking boom of 2008 impacted the population in rural northeastern Pennsylvania—one of the state’s fracking epicenters. My analysis generated two key findings.
First, the demographic effects of fracking vary between regions; some areas experienced population increases while some experienced population decreases following fracking’s “boom period” (2008 in my analysis).
Second, despite these differences, each study area eventually experienced population declines to levels below those recorded in their respective 2010 Census counts. This trend persists even though some regions experienced previously stable (or positive) population trends prior to the fracking boom.
But why focus on population, and what do these findings say about the benefits or drawbacks of fracking?
Population counts hold enormous sway not only in the allocation of federal funding, but also in Congressional apportionment and an area’s political clout. Moreover, fracking’s proponents argue that drilling supports farmers and landowners through royalty payments while contributing to the local economy by boosting industries that support drilling (e.g., hotels for workers), providing state-distributed tax dollars, and funding community initiatives.
But if fracking is to bring these multidimensional benefits to struggling rural communities, people should be moving in, not out, of booming regions. In other words, if an area is so “up-and-coming” with growing economic prospects and community investment, people should be more inclined to move there (or stay there). However, my analysis counters this narrative.
What does this mean for rural fracking regions in Pennsylvania and beyond? For one, the economic benefits of drilling are likely not enough to fight the headwinds of rural depopulation. Consequently, fracking may place a Band-Aid on struggling communities’ economic wounds. In the long run, however, the practice does little to address the underlying causes of rural decline, including a lack of stable, well-paying jobs, attractive amenities, and prospects of future growth.
Communities such as Dimock are stuck in the middle of an increasingly hostile debate between fracking advocates and critics—which, like many issues today, typically follow political or ideological lines. This means that elected Republicans are usually more sympathetic to pro-fracking constituents and industries, while elected Democrats usually (but not always) are more sympathetic to anti-fracking groups and environmental activists.
Abiding by blanket national party agendas rather than acknowledging diverse community needs leads to actions that benefit one group at the expense of another—like in Dimock. Policymakers, community leaders, and other advocates would be better suited to approach the future of fracking by studying and responding to their communities’ unique needs rather than broader political or ideological goals. Moreover, listening to science on issues like oil and gas drilling—even when it’s ideologically incongruent or politically inconvenient—is vital to future generations’ health, safety, and prosperity in “left-behind” rural regions.
As the Coterra settlement highlights, fracking has upended lives and undermined livelihoods. Communities affected by drilling experienced diminished home values, tainted water, unusable roadways, and health issues, including respiratory problems and cancer. My analysis shows that, in addition to these issues, fracking may not benefit communities in the long run, either.
At the same time, some citizens feel that absent fracking, they would no longer be able to maintain their livelihoods and no longer have a community to call home.
While fracking begins to make a resurgence across the country, it is critical to balance short-term economic survival with the long-term understanding of the practice’s limitations in supporting rural drilling communities. Fracking can only do so much. Meanwhile, encouraging fracking comes at significant social, demographic, health, and environmental costs—as the Coterra case illuminates. Stakeholders should acknowledge these multifaceted, community-specific impacts of energy policy decisions. Doing so would help ensure policymakers’ judgments don’t become clouded, either by the lure of myopic thinking or the pervasive political fog.
Murray Fallk is a current PhD student in the Department of Land Economy at the University of Cambridge (Pembroke College) in the United Kingdom. He recently completed his MPhil in Land Economy Research at the University of Cambridge (Pembroke College), where his research focused on the socio-political implications of fracking. Murray earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Policy Analysis and Management from Cornell University in 2020. He also has previous internship experience with Congressman Matt Cartwright (D-PA) and the Politics and Public Opinion team at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.