Shale Gas Boom Could Reinvigorate Rust Belt

Former coal and steel areas in the northwestern United States could prosper again if there is a shale gas boom.

Appalachian sunset over the Blue Ridge Mountains, September 30, 2008
Appalachian sunset over the Blue Ridge Mountains, September 30, 2008 (Jeff Zimmerman)

Once industrial states in the northeastern United States that have seen manufacturing jobs shipped overseas in recent decades can prosper anew if there is a boom in the chemical and natural gas industry.

Improvements in drilling techniques have the potential of transforming the American energy landscape by unlocking the vast shale gas and oil reserves in states that used to be dominated by coal and steel production.

In the northern Appalachian mountain region, energy conglomerates are planning billions of dollars worth of investments to revitalize the natural gas sector and construct new chemical plants.

In this part of the country, where most steel mills shut down long ago and the coal workforce has shrunk by 90 percent in the last forty years, working-class unemployment is stubbornly high despite federal subsidies and job retraining programs.

The geostrategic consultancy Wikistrat predicted this revolution in energy. J. Ross Stewart, a contributing analyst for the firm, wrote earlier this year that small coal towns and family farms across the area that stretches from Indiana to eastern New York to western Kentucky could be “reinvented and resurrected” by the shale boom, “pumping money into economies dormant for decades and triggering a wider American rebound.”

Appalachian manufacturers and engineering services firms begin retooling to support the fracking industry and pursue opportunities, which helps offset the decline in federal and state government spending.

Support from state governments could help though in the form of “sophisticated outreach campaigns strongly courting their diaspora to return from major metropolitan areas throughout the United States and around the world.”

The infrastructure is already in place. Appalachia has an extensive network of pipelines and railway tracks and sits on the Ohio River, a major transportation route.

The ecological impact and safety of novel gas extraction technologies could prove an impediment. Environmentalists believe that fracking causes earthquakes and fear that it will pollute underground water reservoirs.

On the basis of these concerns, one state, New York, has implemented a partial fracking ban after permits for oil and gas drilling doubled during the last decade. In 2008 alone, 36,000 jobs were added to the energy sector in New York because of expansion in shale.

If unemployment remains high and Republicans, who tend to favor oil and natural gas extraction over alternative and cleaner sources of energy, sweep to power in November, obstructionism on the federal level may at least be unlikely.