The Millers’ Story

Proponents of fracking often point to increased employment as a selling point, but the fact of the matter is that the true effect of natural gas extraction on employment is uncertain. In April 2014, a Wall Street Journal article by Paul Polzin and Bill Whitsitt claimed that the “oil-and-gas industry has created hundreds of thousands of new, very-high-paying jobs.” However, in a recent study on the effects of shale gas drilling on Pennsylvania’s economy and labor force, physicist Christoph Friedeburg examined local income tax data and federal and state labor statistics to conclude that fracking’s net contribution to employment was “not merely small, but in fact negative.”

On the issue of fracking and labor, we want our global community of readers to engage in dialogues and debates that lead to the formation of ideas and solutions. To inform and facilitate that process, we will present a series of viewpoints from a variety of stakeholders, including those not typically included in the public discourse. We begin the series with a view that is often underrepresented in the fracking discussion – that is the perspective of the homeowners and rig-workers whose daily lives are directly impacted by fracking in a generally positive and personal way.

Pipes frackingRonda Miller and her husband, Brian, live in Butler County, Pennsylvania. Their home is one of about eight to ten properties that touch the Marburger Dairy Farm, which has leased its land to ExxonMobil for natural gas extraction. Ronda is the mother of two sons, Chad and Jay, both of whom have worked in the hydraulic fracturing industry. Ronda and Jay have given first-hand accounts of the impact that fracking has had on their lives.

“Fracking is good for farmers,” Ronda explained, “because they receive checks for thousands of dollars each month for leasing their land.” However, the families who live on the surrounding properties do not necessarily receive any compensation for the sleep-disruption and general irritation that come from the bright stadium lights, which stay on 24 hours a day, and the loud noises that continue intermittently throughout the day and night. Even when a sound barrier was built around the drilling site, the barrier’s roofless structure limited its effectiveness. “If you take a radio and you put a box up [around it],” Ronda explained “it’s still going to come up the top. You would still get noise.” The drilling had already begun when Ronda and her husband “approached [ExxonMobil] and said [they] should get something for being so close to the noise.”

Because of the rig’s proximity to Ronda’s home, ExxonMobil agreed to place her property in a ‘unit’, which allowed the Miller family to receive a one-time payment for signing a non-surface lease. This type of lease permitted ExxonMobil to go under Ronda’s property but not to use the surface of her land. The Millers also receive a check each month for royalties on the gas extracted below their property, which ExxonMobil predicts will last for over 20 more years.

Ronda’s family feels fortunate that ExxonMobil agreed to sign a lease for their property. “They can go within five feet of your property and not offer you a lease,” Ronda said. Many of the other surrounding families did not receive compensation for the disturbances, which created tension between Ronda and some of her neighbors. Ronda described her street as the dividing line between “people who got money and people who didn’t. People across the street put up with the same aggravations” but received nothing.

Rig 2Ronda’s older son, Jay, works on a natural gas rig with a company called Deep Well Services. His current assignment is in Washington, PA. “I work on the production end,” Jay said. “I bring the gas to the surface, so if I’m working, it means the fracking has already happened… I work 98 hours a week, split into 12 hour shifts, and that can last for up to 7 or 8 weeks in a row.”

Ronda added, “If he works nights, he wakes up at 3pm, goes to the job site for a safety meeting, and then goes to the rig until 5 in the morning.” Although Ronda is glad that “Jay makes very good money and receives health insurance,” she sometimes worries about her son’s safety during these long shifts, knowing that he often has to “climb up 80 feet high on a derrick.”

Hydraulic fracturing has “definitely created a lot of jobs,” said Jay. “I make $110,000 to 120,000 a year doing this. I can’t go back home and make $70,000.” Where the gas companies go, however, jobs follow.

“Fracking came through about 2 years ago. It was real noticeable around here,” Ronda explained. “In the last 8 months, though, they have really pulled out of this area. Employment used to be pretty high, but now I would say it’s back to where it was [before the fracking boom]. It’s gone to Williams Port, PA, and Ohio.” Ronda said that she thought a major reason that companies are leaving Pennsylvania to frack elsewhere is because of “Governor Wolf, who is threatening to put a tax on all the well drilling.” This is not exclusive to Pennsylvania, however. Chad, Ronda’s younger son, saw a similar trend in Williston, North Dakota, where he had worked previously.

Another consideration with regard to fracking-related employment is the fact that most of the workers are not local. “There were a lot of people from Texas,” Ronda said of the workers on the rig behind her property. “I would say only 2 out of 10 people were from here.” This is likely related to the pattern of workers following the industry. Many of Deep Well’s fracking sites have been in Ohio, and Jay and his co-workers live in a hotel while they are drilling in a given area. The amount of time he spends in a location “depends on how many wells there are. He could be in an area for three or four days, or he could be there for a month or two.”Jay 1Ronda found that local restaurants and motels see a jump in revenue when there is fracking nearby. Their revenue returns back to normal, however, when the drilling is finished. One source of jobs that appears to be continuous is the Bluestone Processing Plant. The Plant processes gas from already-drilled wells, so it does not depend on new fracking projects. In fact, “the processing plant is trying to expand even more.” Ronda said that jobs at Bluestone pay well, estimating that employees make approximately $30/hour. The Plant also generates jobs in the transportation sector, as the gas is hauled out on trains.

unnamedBut what about the fracking industry’s effect on local infrastructure? Ronda said that although it took a toll on the roads, when companies [like ExxonMobil] are done fracking, they repave the roads. “It’s a good thing for the small townships that couldn’t otherwise afford to repave their old roads. Money was no object when they were here. Our township got hundreds of thousands of dollars as an impact fee. The money from these companies helped our townships,” Ronda continued, “but now the townships are struggling again.”

I asked her whether she was concerned about the effect of fracking on their water. “We have city water, so it wouldn’t affect us personally,” Ronda admitted. “But [the gas companies] test the water before the drilling begins and then test it afterwards, and I’ve really not heard of anything. Yes, there are anti-fracking protesters. They say that the cows are going drink the water. But you always have people who don’t like things.”

Jay’s response was similar. “I haven’t heard about people’s water being ruined or anything,” he said. “But there were all these protesters in our yard. They were tree huggers, you know.”

 

Sources: Friedeburg, Christoph. Broken Promises: Impacts of Pennsylvania’s Shale Gas Boom on Local Economies. Washington, DC: Worldwatch Institute, 2015. Print.
Miller, Ronda, and Jay Miller. Personal interview. 12 June 2015.
Polzin, Paul. “The U.S. Energy Boom Lifts Low-Income Workers Too.” Wall Street Journal (2014): n.pag. The Wall Street Journal. Web. 19 June 2015. <http://webreprints.djreprints.com/3472150617783.html&gt;.

Photos courtesy of Jay Miller.