Mountain State opportunity: Planning for the shale gas boom - Beckley, Bluefield & Lewisburg News, Weather, Sports

Mountain State opportunity: Planning for the shale gas boom

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Brooks McCabe Brooks McCabe
Sen. Brooks McCabe, D-Kanawha, is a member of The Nature Conservancy — West Virginia Board of Directors. He is managing member and broker of West Virginia Commercial LLC. He has been involved in commercial and investment real estate for more than 30 years, and he also is general partner of McCabe Land Co. LP. He has served in the West Virginia Senate since 1998, and is a special project consultant to The State Journal.

The thoughtful development of Marcellus shale is a game-changer for West Virginia. Yet much of the country is fearful of the new technologies being developed around high-volume hydraulic fracturing.

More and more communities are becoming concerned about how the oil and gas industry may adversely disrupt their communities and lifestyles. The possibility that the United States could become energy independent within the decade is extremely important, but the size and scale of the related development has created real concern on the part of not just the environmental community, but also much of the public at large. If West Virginia is going to become a true leader in the new energy economy, West Virginia University needs to enter the fray in a significant way. The issue is of such importance that Marshall University also needs to add its expertise to the national discussion. Industry must be at the table. The West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association (WVONGA), the West Virginia Independent Oil and Gas Association (IOGA), as well as West Virginia Manufactures Association (WVMA) need to be much more active in explaining away the fears swirling around natural gas production and its downstream chemical manufacturing.

To date, the industry has largely focused on the discussion at the national regulatory level, the West Virginia Legislature and the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection. This, however, does not focus the discussion at the local level as it relates to land use permits, nor specific community concerns over water, roads and air quality. Those discussions are being held community by community and often are played out in the local press. This local focus should be expanded to a discussion at the national level, if the hearts and minds of the larger public are going to be educated and won over. In the last five years everyone in the country now knows of the term “fracking” and it is mostly associated with negative connotations. What group most directly interprets and defines the mood and community standards for our local towns, cities and counties? Can we reach them through a more targeted national conversation?

Community, state and regional planners are the individuals most principally involved in the construction and implementation of land use rules and regulations. As a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP), I recently participated in the American Planning Association’s (APA) annual National Planning Conference in Atlanta. In attendance were 5,000 planners from almost every state in the nation plus planners from around the globe. Of this impressive group, only four were from West Virginia. It should be noted that the West Virginia Development Office was ably represented, as were the cities of Parkersburg and Morgantown. Of the 300-plus sessions and workshops, just a handful related to our emerging policies driving energy independence. It could be argued that this is the most important public policy opportunity currently facing our country. This time around, we must do it right. Yet there were few sessions which really delved into the important land use issues and related oil and gas technologies which will ultimately affect the degree of success and the speed at which our country can obtain energy independence — which, in the short and intermediate terms, will be driven by shale gas development. This is not a criticism of the APA. Rather it is an indication of a missed opportunity by our universities and industry. It should be part of West Virginia’s overall strategic plan to educate key policymakers on what the economic and community development opportunities can be, as well as how to mitigate or avoid both the real and perceived adverse impacts of an expanding energy based economy.

The National Planning Conference had a session titled “Shale Oil and Gas Boomtowns.” One of its presenters was from the Montana Department of Commerce and she gave an informative review of the boom-bust cycle anticipated in the Bakken field in northwest North Dakota and eastern Montana. In this part of the country, the growth is all related to the drilling for natural gas, with the gas being shipped to far-away locations. The long-term jobs will be reduced from the current high employment levels. Housing and funding increases and community services for a temporary spike in employment is no easy challenge. The second speaker was from the City of Baltimore Planning Department. Her presentation was on Garrett and Allegany counties in western Maryland and how can they plan for the impacts of the Marcellus shale boom, which is located in nearby counties in southwestern Pennsylvania. It, too, was very informative. However, neither speaker focused on the much larger issue of how to create manufacturing clusters based on the resources provided from the Marcellus shale so we can become both energy independent and, at the same time, regain our position as a world leader in manufacturing.

The third presenter, who was unable to attend, would have come from Cornell University Extension Service’s Marcellus Shale Team. Being on the edge of the Marcellus field, in an area with little chemical manufacturing, and a state with a political environment very different from West Virginia, the Cornell team’s perspective and research focus would have differences from those studying the specific situation in West Virginia. In reviewing its website, the Cornell Marcellus Shale Team studies such topics as land surface impacts and leasing considerations, Marcellus Shale geology, community and economic development, land use planning and highway and road issues. These are important issues and we in West Virginia need to be studying the same. More importantly, we need to be sharing our research and development insights with the national planning community.

The Cornell program appears to be excellent and perhaps one we can use as a starting point for WVU’s Cooperative Extension Service. The WVU College of Law Land Use and Sustainable Development Law Clinic has excellent staff and program capabilities in this area. Yet, with budget constraints, they have been unable to attend the National Planning Conference. The Law Clinic actually has on staff several AICP certified planners. The WVU College of Engineering and Mining Resources has high-powered expertise in the Marcellus shale arena. Yet its focus is on engineering — not on community, state and regional planning. This is where we need the added resources from the Extension Service and the College of Law to work with the college and help it develop presentations for public consumption.

West Virginia needs to be a leader in the national discussion about planning for the energy independence of this country. Ultimately, all politics is local and we had better have a good basis in state-of-the-art planning initiatives which can be understood and used by local planners. Otherwise, community fears and unanswered questions will significantly slow the progress for energy independence. This is truly an area where West Virginia can assume a leadership role.

WVONGA and IOGA have major roles to play on this stage. As the associations representing the industry, they must guide their members through the rough waters of public perception and help them develop presentations that can be made at venues like the National Planning Conference. Community, state and regional planners need to be better grounded in current technology and industry practices that are state of the art. All too often planning guidelines are based on public perceptions relating to past technologies and industry missteps, not current practices and new technologies. How are planners to know current standards if industry is nowhere to be seen, but only read about with examples of rouge operators? This is an over simplification, but the point is that industry needs to be at the table and one of the best places to be seen and its message presented is at the National Planning Conference.

A second presentation of interest at the National Planning Conference was titled “Sustainable Urban Industrial Land.” It focused on losing industrial land to commercial and mixed uses and the need to focus on brownfield redevelopment. Again, this was an excellent presentation. Marshall and WVU’s Brownfield Assistance Centers have much to share in this subject matter. Other than this presentation, there was little discussion of the reemergence of manufacturing in this country. Even the ethane crackers were viewed with skepticism because some perceived that a major revitalization of the chemical industry was not something viewed as favorable by their constituents. The “Not In My Backyard” syndrome reared its head once again. In many regards these beliefs are commonly held. The WVMA needs to prepare, or have its members prepare, presentations that show the value and high safety standards of modern manufacturing. Planners need to understand that this can be our future; a bright one at that.

There is so much that needs to be shared with the national planning community. If West Virginia is to be a true national leader in the coming energy economy, it must develop a value-based story that can be understood and embraced. We sometimes forget that ultimate success depends on the support of our local communities. Where better to lay a strong foundation than with our local community, state and regional planners, many of whom are members of the West Virginia chapter of the APA? They can help spread the word. The National Planning Conference is a national forum where our story should be told, again and again, until our nation’s communities better understand the opportunities before us and West Virginia’s role in making it happen.

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