New Study on Fracking and Schools Comes to a Surprising Conclusion

In recent years, we’ve seen no shortage of scary headlines about how shale development is harmful to schools. Anti-drilling groups say development occurs too close, or that air emissions could harm students’ health (curiously, those claims are rarely supported by any data, and the data that do exist actually suggest the opposite).

That’s why we were particularly interested in a new study from Resources for the Future (RFF), which explores the potential impacts that the ebb and flow of oil and gas production has had on public education in rural communities in the Marcellus, Bakken and various shale plays in Colorado from 2000-2013. While the study highlights both potentially positive and negative impacts, overall, the researchers determined that “this paper finds little evidence that the recent boom affected student learning outcomes in the short run.” They go on to explain,

“From the available data and extensive interviews, it is not obvious that the oil and gas boom in the Bakken or Marcellus has had a distinctly negative effect on educational outcomes in the short term.” (page 24-25)

Interestingly, they also found that because of differences across regions that were uncovered in the study, it is important to be cautious about “overgeneralizing impacts of resource booms.” In other words, there’s no one size fits all outcome for what may or may not occur as a result of new or increased development in a region. Particularly, the Bakken and Marcellus regions had opposite impacts in many cases.

For instance, the study noted that in the Marcellus more money was spent on educational expenses like teachers’ salaries and curriculum, while in the Bakken the bulk of money went to capital expenses like new or refurbished classrooms. That’s because, at least in part, schools in North Dakota saw increases in students creating a need for more facilities, while Pennsylvania saw decreases in student populations allowing for more money to be spent on in-classroom resources.

But there were some similarities between the shale plays. One of the points frequently highlighted throughout the study was actually something all regions had in common:

“Across almost all districts interviewees did not feel that the boom increased the rate of student dropouts, commonly suggesting that this boom had higher technological demands than previous oil and gas development periods.” (page 4)

In fact, the researchers explained that,

“…interviews in each section of the country referenced the positive impact of community colleges, suggesting that area community colleges were providing training to prepare local candidates for higher -paying work in the oil and gas sector.” (page 24)

So not only did the opportunities available from the oil and gas sector not increase the rate of high school dropouts  –  something that historically occurred in mining communities and a point activists unsuccessfully tried to push in 2015 – but they may have actually encouraged those who would not have attended a post-secondary school to do so.

In 2016, the same RFF researchers released an analysis focusing on this trend in North Dakota, explaining,

“Most school administrators in North Dakota said they did not see a spike in high school dropout rates during the shale boom; others reported a potentially small increase. Generally, there was agreement that this dropout trend differed from the oil boom of the 1980s. Many explained that, in contrast to the 1980s, today’s shale development requires a higher skill set for field workers. Others referenced a policy that discourages hiring workers without a diploma or a GED.” (emphasis added)

The study focused on data prior to the recent downturn, although the interviews were conducted more recently, at a time when development in both the Bakken and Marcellus had tapered off substantially. Today, activity is once again picking up on the upstream (drilling) side of things, but it will be the midstream (pipelines) and downstream (power plants and manufacturers) that will see the most action in coming years.

As the growth in exports continues both for natural gas and oil, expansions to refineries, cracker facilities and other manufacturing plants, and natural gas becomes an even more important part of the electrical grid, increased activity not only just in upstream, but also in midstream and downstream will likely create opportunities for these communities.

In the meantime, it is great to see that overall the industry has not negatively impacted student learning, and quite possibly, has actually helped to increase the level of education achieved by local workforces.

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