Enter Utica: The Fracking Industry Really Loves Ohio; Here's What's on Tap for All of Us

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"Our findings of increased reporting of upper respiratory symptoms among persons living [less than] 1 kilometer from a natural gas well suggests that airborne irritant exposures related to natural gas extraction activities could be playing a role," according to the researchers. "Such irritant exposures could result from a number of activities related to natural gas drilling, including flaring of gas wells and exhaust from diesel equipment. Because other studies have suggested that airborne exposures could be a significant consequence of natural gas drilling activity, further investigation of the impact of such activities on respiratory health of nearby communities should be investigated."

In and around Washington County, where the study was focused, there are 624 natural gas wells, which compares to 294 in Ohio's Carroll County. Statewide, drilling permits remain on the rise, and sheer ubers of wells are on tap.

From the shale-rich counties in the east to the transportation routes slipping across Summit, Medina and Lorain counties and other points west — well, Ohio is right in the heart of it all. But Ohio is not calling the shots on this one.

***

The David L. Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburgh takes on a different personality depending on the conference it is hosting. While most are dotted with off-the-rack sports coats and dressy suits, in December four Texans emerge from the elevator in cowboy boots. One of them is wearing a 10-gallon hat.

To be an executive in the oil and gas industry, at least in Texas, from whence a huge percentage of the attendees at Hart Energy's Marcellus-Utica Midstream conference sprang, one needn't stand on ceremony. One needn't favor designer suits. What one does need is an obsession with heavy machinery bordering on the sexual. One must be conversant in valves. One must be deeply uneasy about oil prices' recent plummet and its portents for 2015 CAPEX (Capital Expenditures) at the major oil and gas conglomerates. On that note, one must be intimate with acronyms — PADD, MMBTU, GSC - — and even more intimate with the streets and office complexes of metro Houston, where everyone seems to work or have once worked. And one must, obviously, have total faith in fracking's value.

Cleveland certainly does. Optimistic execs from Team NEO, a regional organization lately merged with advanced energy-focused NorTech that's tasked with big-ticket economic development, have focused on shale and its offshoot industries as a key cluster to target, in terms of business attraction to Northeast Ohio. Along with biomed "and one or two others," shale has been beeping on the radar as a job and money generator for Cuyahoga and the 17 Northeast Ohio counties under Team NEO's auspices for awhile, but specifically and publicly since Jan. 1, when it unveiled its new "Go Big" job attraction strategy.

If the shale-Cleveland relationship sounds unusual to you — isn't fracking just out on farms? — you're not alone. But Team NEO and the economic projectionists to whom they're listening can't even begin to predict the bounty of jobs Cleveland stands to grow — "grow" being the preferred verb associated with added jobs, as opposed to "gain" or just "get" — if fracking takes off the way it sure looked like it was going to before the recent crash. We're not just talking about transient construction-type stuff either, they say. We're talking executive tier. Quote unquote "Case grads."

"No matter where we are in the cycle, we will rebound," Barry Davis says again and again during his keynote speech on the first day of the Pittsburgh conference. Energetic and commanding at the lectern — presenting himself as, say, Tim Cook at a launch event — the CEO of Enlink Midstream Partners has every reason to be optimistic: The Utica play is "a winner," and though the biggest companies will continue to ease up on research and exploration dollars, in lockstep with the crude market, the heart of the play here in western Pennsylvania and surrounding areas is ripe.

As though he were rattling off the stats of a rising NBA star, Davis tells the crowd that the Utica and Marcellus plays hold 10 of the 19 best cost-value ratios in the American oil and natural gas game. He describes his own company, Enlink Midstream Partners, as being the "right team to execute." Most of the other event speakers, each of whom represents his or her own major midstream operation, pretty much say the same thing.

(The oil and gas sector is commonly divided into three stages: upstream, midstream, and downstream. Upstream deals with exploration and production. Midstream is all about transportation and storage. Downstream's the final phase, focusing on the refining and processing of oil and natural gas, and then of course marketing and distributing derivative products. The high-level jobs that Team NEO hopes to attract in the Cleveland area are likely within the downstream umbrella — petro-chemical manufacturing, fertilizer production, metal and glass industries, to name a few.)

But at the midstream conference, equipment is front and center.

Everyone's very impatient and eager to drill and to ship and to sell. There is no room for debate over what will happen when wells dry up or when errors occur. It sounds reductive, but there's really no consideration for anything other than profit.

***

In September 2011, former Chesapeake Energy CEO Aubrey McClendon — Chesapeake being the granddaddy of domestic fracking — told a crowd in Columbus: "This will be the biggest thing to hit the state of Ohio economically since maybe the plow or the seed or something like that. This is going to be truly, truly extraordinary."

He was speaking of the Utica shale formation, which was then newly discovered as a haven for natural gas liquids (NGLs). Think of NGLs as "the plow or the seed or something like that." NGL extraction is a paradigm shift for the industry, and it's what Ohio is bending over backwards to accommodate.

In addition to methane, the "wet" natural gas of eastern Ohio's Utica play contains compounds like ethane and butane. These NGLs can be separated and transported via any means available (including pipelines and trucks) to any ends conceivable. Ethane, for example, can be turned into ethylene, which can be turned into polyethylene, which is then converted to plastics for a nearly infinite array of industrial and commercial products.

That's one reason Team NEO's so excited: "It's happening very quickly, and it's happening in a big way," Paul Boulier, vice president of business attraction for Team NEO, tells us one day prior to the conference in Pittsburgh. Judging by the industry's tone — the unbridled optimism surrounding all that talk of valves and Houston-based conglomerations — that's the truth of it.

The latest estimates show some $18 billion in investment into the state's shale industry. Beyond that, Boulier tells of something closer to $135 billion in trickle-down derivative investment. Somewhere in there is the industry's collective promise of jobsjobsjobs for the OH-PA-WV region.

But where, exactly? One big problem is that industry job projections always turn out to be outlandish exaggerations. (They smack of the sin-tax promoters promising thousands of permanent jobs downtown due to Gateway development.) In 2011, for instance, John Kasich's spokesman Rob Nichols said that shale was expected to create 200,000 jobs in Ohio "over the next four years." But according to Team NEO, in 2015 only 40,000 jobs (direct and indirect) have been supported by shale. They're now anticipating 146,000 by 2020 and 267,000 by 2035.

And those may be low, we're assured.

About The Authors

Sam Allard

Sam Allard is the Senior Writer at Scene, in which capacity he covers politics and power and writes about movies when time permits. He's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the NEOMFA at Cleveland State. Prior to joining Scene, he was encamped in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on an...

Eric Sandy

Eric Sandy is an award-winning Cleveland-based journalist. For a while, he was the managing editor of Scene. He now contributes jam band features every now and then.
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