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Planning essential for successful shale communities

Ohio communities experiencing the shale oil and gas boom often realize early that they have little control in regulating that development. That authority lies at the state level. And there’s bound to be conflict among neighbors — winners, losers and concerned citizens — as shale development increases.

But communities shouldn’t simply throw up their hands and just take what comes, said Joe Campbell, research associate with the Social Responsibility Initiative in Ohio State University’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences. The initiative is housed in the college’s School of Environment and Natural Resources.

Being proactive, establishing communication lines, and gathering information about the industry and its impacts can help communities manage the often swift nature of shale oil and gas development, he said.

Campbell studied the issue for his doctoral degree in rural sociology, which he earned in 2013. As part of his research, he conducted interviews in Jefferson County, which lies over both the Marcellus and Utica/Point Pleasant shale deposits. Shale drilling activity began there in 2011.

“I went in there not really sure what to expect,” Campbell said.

He had already studied factors that affect how governments work together and had followed research on how development occurred in shale basins in Pennsylvania, Texas, North Dakota and other locations.

For this piece of research, Campbell wanted to see how those factors might play out in a community facing significant change. In spring 2012, he talked with county, city and township officials, as well as business and community leaders and citizens in Jefferson County.

Campbell’s findings resulted in an Ohio State University Extension fact sheet, “Adapting to Shale-Based Development Through a Countywide Approach: Lessons Learned from Jefferson County, Ohio,” available online at http://go.osu.edu/shale_lessons. OSU Extension is the outreach arm of the college.

Campbell found that Jefferson County’s resiliency to the changes taking place was based in large part on a framework of collaborative management that had built up among leading elected officials, public administrators and private-sector leaders during the 1990s and 2000s. Beforehand, it appeared that those relationships were strained from a culture of conflict and isolationism, Campbell said. But as the steel industry and other manufacturing declined, community leaders began to pull together. In 2008, the Chamber of Commerce spearheaded the creation of a countywide strategic plan.

The “Community Investment Plan: A Partnership in Growth” established measures for the quality of community and family life, improving and expanding infrastructure, and stimulating workforce and economic growth. And, perhaps just as importantly, Campbell said, it fostered a cooperative environment that was essential in helping the county manage shale development.

“I think it was the nature of the public officials (in office at the time) to say, ‘We spent decades turning our heads from the issues that were facing us. Now we really need to take the situation head-on,’ ” Campbell said. “They knew they couldn’t zone this or regulate that or force the companies to hire local labor, but they could focus on educating their citizens and the various industries that were coming in about what the community had to offer, and then communicate effectively throughout the community and back to the industry.”

In 2012, the county commissioners formed a 15-member Jefferson County Oil and Gas Committee that included representation from a broad range of sectors, including real estate, environment, emergency services, hotel and lodging, professional services, the oil and gas industry, workforce development, education, hospitals, and infrastructure, as well as local political entities at the county, municipal and township levels.

Although some thought forming the committee was late in coming, Campbell said the speed of shale development can take any community by surprise.

“As one county commissioner put it, ‘The industry is a Ferrari, and we’re a 1980 Ford F-150,’ ” Campbell said.

The committee gathered information and sponsored public meetings about the area’s shale development. Members included those who were supportive of the development, those who were not supportive and those who were on the fence.

“They were willing to have those sometimes-heated conversations,” Campbell said.

The information that was collected and shared showed why forming the committee was so important, Campbell said.

“It wasn’t just the average citizen on the street who didn’t know much about shale oil and gas development, it was the mayor, the county commissioner, the county engineer, people who might be more privy to bigger conversations — they were on the same level, to a large extent, as the average citizen,” Campbell said. “The committee became an educational tool to have guest speakers come in who knew what retail demands there might be, what housing demands would exist, what might come next and whose business card you might need to have on hand to get things done.”

David Maple, Jefferson County commissioner who facilitates the committee’s meetings, said development didn’t occur as quickly in Jefferson County as it did in neighboring counties, primarily because of the type of gas in the area’s shale. Still, forming the committee was a positive development for the county, he said.

“One of the main goals of the committee was to be a conduit for open communications and sharing information with the industry, schools, government and community,” Maple said. “Now our focus is on how we can maximize opportunities and reduce risks related to the industry. The 2014 strategy is to make sure our community grows the right way as a result of oil and gas development.”

James Branagan, Jefferson County engineer, presented at a session organized by the committee last summer. He informed residents of the road-use agreement the county negotiated with the oil and gas industry, as damage to rural roads due to the heavier-than-normal loads required by shale development is a common complaint about the industry.

“We tried to be proactive,” Branagan said. “The companies upgraded the roads ahead of time to be strong enough and wide enough to handle the loads. We’re really happy with the outcome.”

Companies spent about $9 million for road upgrades in Jefferson County, Branagan said, adding that county and township officials had visited sites in Pennsylvania and learned from their experience with shale development. The committee, now called GO Jefferson County, was a key factor in the community applying for and receiving a $50,000 grant from the Ohio Department of Development to develop a website, http://www.gojeffersoncounty.com, Campbell said.

The website acts as a hub for sharing local shale information.

“Leaders wanted to build a channel of communication to help reduce the social conflicts that stem from people not knowing what’s going on,” Campbell said. “And the funding to do this wouldn’t have been available without the foresight in creating the committee to begin with.”

To learn more about the experience of Jefferson County, see Campbell’s fact sheet at http://go.osu.edu/shale_lessons.

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