Last winter, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Institute for 21st Century Energy predicted that the snowballing Marcellus Shale gas boom and spinoff industries will create 30,000 high-paying West Virginia jobs by 2020 and 58,000 by 2035 -- vastly outstripping the fading coal industry.
Projections in a three-part study titled "America's New Energy Future: The Unconventional Oil and Gas Revolution" said horizontal drilling and "fracking" have opened an era in which "shale will create millions of jobs and trillions in investments over the coming decades."
A section on West Virginia said:
"The mining sector has been hit hard by a downturn in coal production. ... Fortunately, the state sits on promising gas reserves, primarily the Marcellus Shale formation. ... Unconventional, oil and gas directly and indirectly supported nearly 12,000 jobs in the state in 2012. The state's unconventional gas-related employment is expected to increase to 30,000 jobs by 2020 and to 58,000 by 2035. These jobs would employ 6.8 percent of the state labor force by 2035."
The report says the drilling boom added $1.6 billion to West Virginia's economy in 2012 and "we forecast that this contribution will grow to $9.3 billion by 2035." That's almost a sixfold increase.
Now, however, a contradictory study by the Multi-State Shale Research Collaborative says early estimates have been far too rosy. Ted Boettner of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy said gasfield work so far is "less than 1 percent of the state employment mix." Frank Mauro of the Fiscal Policy Institute in New York said:
"Industry supporters have exaggerated the jobs impact in order to minimize or avoid altogether taxation, regulation and even careful examination of shale drilling."
Which assessment is most accurate? Continuing developments in coming months and years will provide an answer.
The recent announcement of a possible ethane "cracker" and three polyethylene chemical plants near Parkersburg to turn Marcellus gas into thousands of plastic products raised hopes -- but it's not yet certain whether they will materialize.
Nobody can predict economic outcomes precisely, but it seems that West Virginia is changing. As coal's dominance slips, a different future is taking shape.State leaders must manage this transition wisely, imposing strong safeguards to prevent ravages such as those that accompanied previous industrial booms. As for us, we hope the Marcellus upsurge brings even more jobs and prosperity than the wildest forecasts.