Survey of Washington, Greene elected officials shows positive views of gas industry
A survey of elected leaders in Washington and Greene counties found generally positive experiences with the gas exploration industry that has changed the face of their communities.
“They’re starting to see a lot of vitality. There’s physical activity in the communities and new wealth among some property owners. New employees. That’s all very positive,” said Diana Stares, the director of the Center of Energy Policy and Management at Washington & Jefferson College, who oversaw the survey. “Now they’re anxious to draw from that development some long-term results. And some don’t know how to go about that.”
Interactions between drilling companies and local officials are improving as both sides get to know each other, and as money and jobs flow into the region, several people said.
“It was a growing experience, I think, by some of these companies coming in here,” said Washington County Commissioner Larry Maggi, a Democrat. “But they saw that if you treat people fairly, they’ll respond in a positive way.”
The center conducted the poll with the Environmental Law Institute in Washington as part of a larger effort supported by the Heinz Endowments to help community leaders deal with drilling issues, Stares said. The center this week expects to release a policy paper connected to the survey and a handbook the college wrote for local leaders.
The center heard from nearly 90 of the 440 elected officials who received surveys last fall. Among those responding:
• 80 percent said residents got jobs with the industry. Of those who disagreed, most cited lack of training or interest among residents.
• 44.7 percent said Marcellus shale development had a positive impact on municipal revenue, compared with 8.2 percent who noted a negative impact
• 72 percent said they had no conflict with the industry
• 65 percent said per-well impact fees that operators pay to the state, which are distributed to towns, were adequate “at this time”
“In my opinion it affirms what we hear broadly across the commonwealth,” said David J. Spigelmyer, president of the industry lobbyist Marcellus Shale Coalition. “Our member companies are good corporate citizens. Those impact fees are providing good revenue and certainly bolstering local government.”
The industry has had its share of conflicts with municipal leaders in the two counties, home to many hydraulically fractured gas wells. Several Washington County townships led the legal challenge against Act 13, the 2012 law that imposed the impact fee, new rules on drillers and since-overturned limits on local control of drilling activities. Officials in one township — Robinson — dropped out of the lawsuit.
“We’ve had more time now under our belt to develop the relationships,” Spigelmyer said.
Twenty-seven percent of survey participants said they communicate directly with industry representatives by phone, email or personal meetings, and 21 percent said they see the industry at public meetings.
“The industry, they probably learned by their mistakes in other areas,” Maggi said.
Stares, who previously worked with the Department of Environmental Protection, which regulates the industry, said the region’s physical landscape, the addition of big trucks on winding, country roads and uncertainty made the transition tough in the beginning.
“This is a difficult enterprise for both the industry and the community,” said Stares, who did follow-up interviews with some officials. “It’s not open fields like in Texas. It made the development more difficult for everyone to cope with.”
The center is looking for more funding to keep working on the handbook for elected officials, which Stares said would change as its authors got more feedback from the community.
David Conti is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-388-5802 or [email protected].