ProPublica-Funded Article on W. Virginia Shale Development is More Scare Tactic Than Objective Journalism
Attempting to draw parallels between West Virginia’s thriving natural gas industry and the region’s history of coal production, a recent article in the Charleston Gazette-Mail functions more as an anti-natural gas development scare tactic than objective piece of investigative journalism. As the first in a series of West Virginia-focused articles in partnership with New York City-based advocacy outlet ProPublica, the piece inaccurately frames the region’s natural gas development as something to fear rather than celebrate.
To understand the extent to which this article missed the mark about the state’s natural gas development, let’s breakdown some the article’s key claims:
CLAIM: “A recent analysis shows that, as with coal, increasing gas production might not bring broader economic gains. Between 2014 and 2016, while gas output kept climbing, the six largest-producing counties lost 1,600 jobs across all sectors of the economy, according to the February report by the West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy.”
FACT: By using narrowly focused employment numbers from the top producing counties between just 2014 and 2016, this article attempts to cast doubt on the overall employment impact that natural gas development has on the state. Contrary to this narrow-sighted view, however, natural gas development has been a boon for West Virginia, helping to significantly lower unemployment and stave off jobs losses seen in other sectors.
For example, according to recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate in eight of West Virginia’s top natural gas producing counties has declined by an average of 41 percent from 2010 to 2017. Some of these counties, such as Brooke and Ritchie counties, have seen unemployment rates decline even further, dropping 46 percent and 43 percent, respectively, over this same period.
Notably, the article contradicts itself directly before its claim that greater production “might not bring broader economic gains,” noting that total natural gas jobs increased over 73 percent from 2006 to the third quarter of 2017, while total natural gas production increased more than 600 percent over the same time-frame. Moreover, when factoring in indirect employment, the total number of jobs supported by shale development jumps to nearly 71,000 jobs, according to a 2017 report from PwC.
CLAIM: “But critics fear that West Virginia won’t fully share in the riches the industry creates and will be forced to bear the long-term environmental, health and infrastructure costs, much as it has for the now-dwindling coal industry.”
FACT: West Virginia shale development provides vital revenue at the state and county level. According to the West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association (WVONGA), total tax revenue on oil and natural gas production provided over $96 million to fund local school systems and community services last year. This includes substantial revenue for counties where shale development has been allowed to thrive, such as Wetzel and Marshall counties, which saw over $15.37 million and $10.55 million, respectively, in property tax revenue from oil and gas in 2017.
In addition to providing vital tax revenue, the growth in West Virginia’s natural gas production has drawn billions of dollars in new investment for job-creating projects around the state. Most notably, the West Virginia Department of Commerce last November announced an agreement with China Energy to invest an astounding $83.7 billion in shale development and chemical manufacturing (of which natural gas is a main feedstock) projects in West Virginia. To put this amount in perspective, the state’s gross domestic product in 2016 was $73.4 billion – $10.3 billion less than the total investment associated with all of the potential projects.
Other potential projects include new natural gas power generation facilities, such as the proposed 630-megawatt Energy Solutions Consortium power plant in Harrison County, W. Va., which is estimated to contribute $300 million in annual economic benefit, as well as 400 construction jobs. New natural gas generation projects not only contribute to the economy but also help reduce regional emissions. For example, between 2005 and 2015, total carbon emissions from electricity generation in West Virginia have declined by over 19 million metric tons of CO2 – that’s a 22.4 percent drop in just 10 years. Over this same period, natural gas use for electricity generation increased more than 354 percent, while the state’s overall carbon emissions declined by roughly 21 million metric tons.
CLAIM: “The Coal Industry Extracted a Steep Price from West Virginia. Now Natural Gas is Leading the State Down the Same Path.”
FACT: Considering this is the headline for the article, the author is not only immediately trying to connect natural gas with coal, but also state that natural gas development will be harmful to West Virginia. Forcing the audience into such an biased viewpoint should be shocking from a “Pulitzer Price-Winning Newspaper,” but comes as no surprise after reading the author’s series overview:
“In this series of stories, with the help of ProPublica, I hope to bring readers here in West Virginia, and those around the country, a clearer view of how history could be repeating itself.” (emphasis added)
The author plainly states that his intent is not to approach the current growth in West Virginia’s natural gas production with an open mind, but instead work backwards from the conclusion that “history could be repeating itself” – something we’ve seen from ProPublica before. It is also interesting to note that the piece has since been reposted on fringe activist websites such as AlterNet, where a current top story charges oil and gas companies with committing “terrorism.”
This mentality, that natural gas development could negatively impact West Virginia, is commonly perpetuated by environmental activist groups like Sierra Club, whose anti-fossil fuel campaigns include Beyond Coal and Beyond Natural Gas. Considering shale development contributed an estimated $8 billion in total value to the West Virginia economy in 2015, such efforts have been underwhelming in West Virginia, as the vast majority of residents support shale development and the economic benefits it provides. In fact, a recent “community summit” put on by the Sierra Club-backed Appalachian Gas Working Group drew fewer participants than the group has partners – even after offering to pay participants for attending.
As the country’s eighth largest natural gas producer, shale development’s role in the West Virginia economy is not insignificant. But while some seek to cast doubt on the benefits provided by natural gas production to the state, as this latest article does, residents shouldn’t give in to such concerns, as development has contributed tens of millions of dollars in annual tax revenue, has spurred billions of dollars in investment, and provided thousands of jobs to hardworking men and women. So, if the past few years is any indication, the best is still yet to come.