Falling natural gas prices are bad news for some US communities

Living on Earth
A gas flare burns at a fracking site in rural Bradford County, Pennsylvania.

In many towns in the US, the fracking boom brought new jobs, new businesses and a sense of optimism. But the mild winter has caused natural gas prices to drop and now some companies have laid off workers and shut down their operations — and that means big changes for some local economies.

Western Pennsylvania, home to the Marcellus Shale formation, has begun to feel the effects. Robbie Matesic, head of economic development for Greene County, one of the biggest drilling areas in the region, says the difference between now and a few years ago is actually audible: A few years back, the constant traffic outside her office made it difficult to hold a conversation too close to the window.

The boom five years ago brought an influx of workers into the county. “All of a sudden, we saw that most of the traffic [going] through the town was from Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, Colorado, Utah,” Matesic says.

The county benefitted from that activity. It got millions of dollars in drilling fees that have gone toward roads and bridges, sewers and social services. Matesic said locals also got jobs with companies that supplied the drilling rigs and pipeline crews. Restaurants and hotels were full and savvy local businesses began catering to oil and gas workers as they passed through.

But now, at places like Jerry Lee’s Emporium in Waynesburg, Pennsylvania, those days are gone. Jerry Lee’s now has a handwritten sign on the front door: “Store closing for good.” 

Jerry Lee Edwards opened his store in 2014. He came to Waynesburg from southern West Virginia to sell clothes to oil and gas workers. The heart of his business was selling fire resistant coveralls, pants, jeans and work pants. “For the first six months, business was fabulous,” Edwards says. “Then it just started going down and down and down.”

This spring, Edwards decided to close his shop. Others who have tied their fortunes to the fracking industry face similar decisions. State records show Pennsylvania has lost 10,000 jobs in the industry.

Some residents, like Joel Kovach, who manages an RV park and Rohanna’s Golf Course outside Waynesburg, think business will pick up again in two or three years and plan to stick it out. Edwards says he can’t wait that long.

“I'm 73 years old. I'm not waiting two or three years for it to ‘maybe’ come back,” he says.  So Edwards is heading to the US Virgin Islands, where he’ll work as a music promoter.

For those choosing to remain in Greene County, most are getting used to what life looks like at the end of the boom times.

This article is based on a report by Reid Frazier for the Allegheny Front. It aired on PRI’s Living on Earth with Steve Curwood.

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