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Mid-Ohio Valley Climate Corner: Failed promises of the natural gas industry

Residents of the Mid-Ohio Valley have been presented with several myths about the benefits of the natural gas industry. These myths have resulted in unfulfilled promises that have left the Valley and greater Appalachia in a chronic state of economic stagnation and population decline. First there was the promise of a natural gas boom in 2008. Then there was the idea of the hydrogen storage hub, followed by the “petrochemical renaissance,” with the promise of a major cracker plant (to convert natural gas to raw material of plastics), and finally the plan for hydrogen-based energy and carbon capture and sequestration.

The false promise of a boom in the Ohio River Valley was brought to light in a February 2021 report by the Ohio River Valley Institute. The authors examined 22 counties in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia (dubbed “Frackalachia” in this report) that produce natural gas. The myth propagated by advocates for the natural gas industry promised unprecedented growth from 2008 to 2019. While gross domestic product in the U.S. grew substantially during this period, in Frackalachia the local economy declined or stagnated–there was a 6% decline in jobs and an 8% decline in population.

The idea of a storage hub has similarly gone unrealized, and the plan for a major cracker plant in the region is still pinned on the false hopes that a government-owned company in Thailand would fund this operation.

More recently, we have heard about plans to develop hydrogen as a “clean” source of energy along with the idea of carbon capture and sequestration. The major means of production for this energy source is blue hydrogen, which is made from methane or natural gas. That means there will be no reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. A more promising source of hydrogen is green hydrogen, made from water using electrolysis, but at this point only about 2% of hydrogen is made from water.

Another myth promulgated by supporters of fossil fuels is that carbon capture and sequestration will significantly reduce carbon in the environment. The plan is to compress carbon from all major sources and ship this compressed carbon through a massive system of pipelines. This system of pipelines and the infrastructure to capture and compress carbon are tremendously expensive, adding billions of dollars, which could be saved merely by transitioning directly to renewable sources of energy.

While natural gas production grew from 4% in 2008 to 35% from 2008 to 2019, job growth in the region was 8% below the national average, according to a 2021 study (“Destined to Fail”) by the Ohio River Valley Institute. Dollars associated with this growth of production did not enter the local economy. This is confirmed anecdotally by the observation of out-of-state license plates at natural gas sites. Furthermore, residents of the region have to cope with emissions from the natural gas industry that have spoiled air and water and accounted for increased risks of health problems like cancer and respiratory illnesses.

Residents of Washington County are well aware of the costs of the natural gas industry as they have experienced the huge growth of injection wells (for brine waste from the fracking of natural gas)–8 million barrels in 2019 — with the attendant risks of air and water pollution and health problems.

In an online publication, “Route Fifty” (2022), Amanda Woodrum of the ReImagine Appalachia movement has written that fossil fuels have increased the nation’s prosperity while absentee corporations have extracted profits and exploited resources of the region, leaving the region in poverty, lands damaged, and workers and neighbors with chronic illnesses.

What is needed for the Ohio Valley to prosper in the 21st Century, Woodrum goes on to explain, is a plan to: modernize the electrical grid, expand universal high-quality broadband, grow clean and efficient manufacturing, build a sustainable transportation system, repair lands damaged by the exploitative fossil-fuel industries, restore wetlands, and promote regenerative agricultural practices. These kinds of investments are based on labor-intensive practices not the capital-intensive methods of the past.

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George Banziger, Ph..D., was a faculty member at Marietta College and an academic dean at three other colleges. Now retired, he is a volunteer for the Mid-Ohio Valley Interfaith, and Harvest of Hope. He is a member of the Green Sanctuary Committee of the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Marietta, Citizens Climate Lobby, and of the Mid-Ohio Valley Climate Action team.

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