Farm bureaus look at oil and gas boom's impact on agricultural communities

By MALLORY EVANS Special to The News Leader Published:

Farm Bureau members from Carroll, Tuscarawas, Jefferson and Harrison counties travelled to the small town of Avella, Pa., May 29 to see first-hand how the oil and gas industry impacts rural, agricultural communities.

The group viewed well sites, a fracking pond, a rig, and a pipeline on a driving tour of the area. Afterwards, the group attended a working lunch with county commissioners, a state representative, an outreach manager from the Marcellus Shale Coalition, members of the Washington County Planning Commission, and other community leaders to better understand what an oil and gas boom looks like.

Range Resources began drilling for Marcellus Shale in Washington County in 2004. Since then, many landowners have leased their land for wells, fracking ponds and pipelines. The town of Avella itself is still small and many of the storefronts are empty.

"This is a rough looking town," Michele Specht, organizational director for the four farm bureaus, said as the group pulled into the downtown area. "You wouldn't think there was oil and gas here."

To a traveller passing through, the economic impact of the drilling may go unnoticed around Avella. Landowner and consultant Craig Sweger led the Farm Bureau group on the tour through the area, pointing out the various ways Marcellus shale has changed the lives of many in Washington County.

Sweger showed barns and milking parlors that have been upgraded by local farmers benefiting from their leases. "It's great to see barns being rebuilt. The equipment and pickup dealers have seen a real bonanza," Sweger said.

Several local industries are doing more business because of Range's presence in the area. The local restaurant, Breezy Heights Tavern, has seen an increase in lunch and dinner business. A local dairy farm increased business by catering at the work sites. Rental businesses and construction companies have benefitted as well. There is a greater need for hauling services, and local trucking companies are stepping forward.

"A lot of people have gotten into the trucking business - water trucks, dump trucks," Sweger said.

Some of these economic boosts come with negative side effects. Most rental properties are full, which leaves local residents unable to find or afford rentals. In many parts of the county, hotels and construction are profitable industries, but when the initial boom slows down, this growth will also slow.

Washington County Commissioner Harlan Shober Jr. said that job creation that uses the gas itself is key. Finding manufacturing corporations interested in the county's cheap energy supply could help sustain economic growth in for the long term.

Throughout the day, many of the speakers emphasized the importance of education when negotiating lease agreements.

Sweger shared several of the provisions he insisted on in the leasing of his own property. Many of those provisions will ensure the quality of Sweger's farmland after the drilling has stopped, protecting his agricultural livelihood. "If you're cooperative with them, they'll help you," he said.

Carroll County Farm Bureau President John Davis expressed some regret that leaseholders in Carroll County did not have this help and guidance sooner. Many have already signed leases and settled on offers. Davis believes this trip will provide the farm bureaus with guidance to further educate property owners on oil and gas leases.

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