ORVI Insider – Volume 3

A Message from Our Executive Director

Last week, we lost one of my personal heroes and legendary lawyer and advocate for gender equality, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. This loss leaves us with uncertainty around the political maneuvering we can expect over the next several weeks, how her death will impact the 2020 presidential election, and what this vacancy on the US Supreme Court will mean for the future of American jurisprudence. But, according to those close to her, Justice Ginsburg left no question about how she would like to be remembered: as someone who did whatever she could, with whatever limited talent she had, to move society along in the direction she would like it to be for her children and grandchildren. 

As we carry out the work of the Ohio River Valley Institute, we draw inspiration from the humility and dedication to improving our democracy that Justice Ginsburg embodied. Communities throughout the greater Ohio River Valley and western Pennsylvania need advocates, policymakers, academics, and – yes – even independent non-profit think tanks – to do whatever we can and devote whatever limited talent we have to move the region forward for the health and prosperity of current and future generations. 

It is in this spirit that we highlight the work of Ohio River Valley Institute Advisory Council member Dr. Heather Stephens, who has dedicated her career to the study of regional economic development. Understanding the interplay of energy, environment, health, and regional growth is essential for securing an equitable and prosperous Ohio Valley, and Dr. Stephens is contributing immensely to this field of study. In addition, we feature new research on income and wealth inequality in the region, Pennsylvania’s high home heating costs despite more than a decade of fracking, what a recent Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision means for absentee voting, and the misleading myth of energy independence.

Advisor’s Corner: Meet Advisory Council Member Dr. Heather Stephens

“What my colleague, WVU PhD candidate Zachary Keeler, and I found in our new analysis, Valuing shale gas development in resource-dependent communities, is that homes near active shale gas wells in West Virginia sell for less. While this is consistent with similar findings of property devaluation in the shale fields of Colorado and elsewhere, it was not entirely predictable for West Virginia. It suggests that, even though there may be short-term income or employment gains from shale development, households still negatively perceive the impacts from drilling, such as pollution and congestion. And, that as a result, policymakers should be concerned about the long-term impacts of this new energy development.”

Heather M. Stephens is an Associate Professor in Resource Economics and Management and a Faculty Research Affiliate at the Regional Research Institute (RRI) at West Virginia University. Her research is focused on examining issues related to regional economic development and the differences in the impact of policies across regions. Her current and past research has examined questions related to energy, environmental quality, entrepreneurship, health, and regional growth. In 2019, Dr. Stephens co-authored (with fellow ORVI Advisory Council member Dr. Amanda Weinstein) a study finding that shale gas development had a negative impact on home values in Colorado, and that it especially impacted those houses with scenic views. With Zachary Keeler, Dr. Stephens recently co-authored a similar article on housing values and shale development in West Virginia, also finding that property values decreased with proximity to shale gas wells, even in the face of the potential positive impact on jobs.

ORVI Research Spotlight

Inequality is Robbing Workers of Pay in the Ohio River Valley: to combat income and wealth inequality in the United States and in the Ohio River Valley, it is going to take action at the state and federal level.

Workers in West Virginia should be making $117,000 a year on average — and they would be too, if only we had pursued the same economic strategies we had in the 1970s. Instead, we’ve taken power away from workers, lowered taxes on the wealthy, and designed an economic system that redistributes money upward. That $117k figure may sound implausible, but it’s not. In fact, it comes from a detailed new study by the Rand Corporation.

Pennsylvania Families Pay More for Natural Gas Than Most Americans: fracking boom leaves Pennsylvania family budgets out in the cold.

For years, industry boosters have argued that fracking benefits ordinary Pennsylvania households by providing them with lower home heating costs. But, if fracking is lowering costs and Pennsylvania is a national leader in fracking, why are natural gas rates in the Keystone State higher than those in the rest of the country?

Pennsylvania Prevails on Absentee Voting Access: Court rules Pennsylvania can count votes arriving after Election Day and offer more drop boxes.

The state’s highest court paved the way Thursday for election officials to count postmarked ballots three days after Election Day and provide ballot drop boxes in the November election—two key changes to make voting by mail more accessible and reduce disenfranchisement.

Energy Independent? Not even close.

What’s clear is that the economics that make an Appalachian petrochemical buildout even conceivable are based on a bevy of political contrivances, from the OPEC cartel to an array of industry subsidies and state actors, that are coming under assault from markets as demand weakens and as people in all countries wake up to the externalized costs fossil fuels and petrochemicals inflict on society as a whole. Faced with the prospect that those political contrivances may be diluted or undone, the risks associated with an Appalachian petrochemical hub are driving away investors in droves.

What We’re Reading at ORVI

As presidential campaigns heat up leading into and following the Democratic and Republican National Conventions, and the COVID-19 pandemic persists across the country, energy and democracy issues are taking center stage in the news. Our researchers have compiled the top stories of the past week to keep you informed and up to date on key developments in the sectors that matter most to our region.

  • The wooing of a would-be petrochemical plant (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette): Shell’s decision to build a petrochemical plant in Beaver County has divided southwestern Pennsylvania, spurring debates about the future economic identity of the region given the twin crises of climate change and plastics pollution. That debate is absent from the documents showing economic developers’ attempt to dazzle Exxon.
  • With Peak Plastic Looming, Petrochemicals Are at a Crossroads (Triple Pundit): As the global transportation sector decarbonizes, oil and gas stakeholders have been pinning their hopes for survival on the growth in demand for plastics and other petrochemicals. That may have seemed like a safe bet just a few years ago. However, a recent report from the organization Carbon Tracker has thrown cold water on the strategy.

  • Exclusive: EQT bids for Chevron U.S. shale-gas assets in Appalachia – sources (Reuters): EQT Corp, the largest U.S. natural gas producer by volume, has placed a bid of $750 million on Chevron Corp’s Appalachia gas properties and a pipeline stake.

  • In the Ohio River Valley, with the pandemic’s help, the petrochemical boom is on hold (StateImpact Pennsylvania): For years, industry boosters in Appalachia have promoted the idea of a building boom for petrochemical plants like the PTT ethane cracker. But other projects have either been dropped or put on hold, and now the pandemic has left some communities in the Ohio River Valley wondering if those plants will ever get built.

  • Pennsylvania’s political geography: Where each party’s voters come from (Washington Post): We’ve split Pennsylvania into seven states — or, if you must get technical, seven commonwealths. Democrats turn out big margins in three of them: the urban centers of Allegheny and Philadelphia counties, and the populous suburbs of the Southeast. Three other regions were red before 2016 and got redder: the West, conservative Central Pennsylvania and the Dutch Country around Harrisburg and Lancaster. The key swing region is the Northeast, from Allentown to Scranton to the deeply conservative townships of Wayne and Pike counties.

  • Poll shows strong support in Pennsylvania for RGGI cap-and-trade program (Pittsburgh Business Times): A new survey of Pennsylvania voters says that most support the commonwealth’s membership in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), which seeks to lower carbon dioxide emissions with a cap-and-trade program with other states.