Varied Boomtown Experiences

Not everyone experiences boomtowns in the same way. Factors such as where you live, the history of your community, the type of development that is occurring, and who you are can lead to different experiences for different individuals.

Where you live

The impacts of energy extraction, and the perceptions of those impacts, vary across regions and communities (Freudenburg and Gramling 1993). Characteristics of places affect how they experience development, meaning that studies need to carefully consider how places differ in terms of their pre-existing economic, social, demographic, and cultural history as well as geography and natural resources. This is especially important when trying to directly apply the original ‘boomtown’ research to the Northeast US now, which varies greatly from the communities in the intermountain west in terms of geographical context, community size, social and economic history, proximity to urban areas, and natural resources. Further, communities within this region also vary along those same lines. Some key differences we have found to be important include:

  • Population size and population density: Places with larger populations are generally able to accommodate population growth easier than places with smaller populations.
  • Road networks: Relatedly, places with more extensive road networks are better able to absorb increased traffic associated with development. Additionally, there are more alternative routes. As a result, the traffic is less of a concern in areas with extensive road networks.
  • Labor market/housing market: More extensive road networks and proximity to urban areas also mean that the population of an area is more spread out. The housing market is larger, offering more options for different types of housing, and is less likely to be acutely stressed by population growth.
  • Local history and culture: The social, economic, cultural, and political history of places matters, particularly in relation to the familiarity and acceptance of a specific industry. For example, some of our research suggests there is less concern about the potential risks of Marcellus development in those parts of the state with a history of oil and gas extraction. This history creates familiarity with the type of process and economic ties to a related industry.

Types of Development

Development is a broad term that encompasses multiple stages of the exploration, extraction, and production of natural gas. These stages have differing types and levels of community impacts because they require differing types of workers and technology in a region. Consequently it is important to understand the characteristics of development and how it unfolds in a particular place to identify the types of impacts it will have:

  • Stages of production: The development stage – when the most workers are needed to initially tap into the resource and build the infrastructure needed to extract the resource – tends to have the greatest impacts on communities. As the development stage gives way to the production stage, when fewer workers are needed to extract the resource and take it to market, fewer workers are needed overall.
  • Geology/infrastructure/leaseholding: The combination of geological resources (where are the most promising or proven resources?), existing infrastructure (especially pipelines), and lease-holding patterns have created ‘hotspots’ of development. These hotspots have the fastest pace and largest scale of development, resulting in the most workers, business activity, trucks and traffic, and materials needed.
  • Organization of the industry: The energy industry is organized with several large national or multinational energy production corporations that subcontract for many of the services that are needed to produce natural gas, from clearing a well pad to hydraulic fracturing to building pipelines. The production companies have been setting up headquarters, several located in Canonsburg, PA, as well as regional headquarters in some of the major cities such as Williamsport. They also have built field offices located around the region. The service companies also set up offices in this kind of regional pattern. This makes a difference in terms of the number and types of employees located in each office, which influences housing needs and other potential community impacts.

Who you are

At the individual level, how a person experiences development will vary based on who they are and their social position. The main influence is the ability to directly benefit from development, including the ability to gain economically through a new job or increased work hours or through direct leasing and royalty income. Those who are unable to receive these benefits – such as the disabled, elderly, renters, etc. – experience the inconveniences and potential problems created by the activity (such as traffic, safety issues, population change, etc.,) but do not receive any benefits to off-set those problems. In addition, certain segments of the local population may be affected uniquely. For example, Freudenburg (1986) found that school-age youth were unable to insulate themselves from the newcomers to the community who brought different cultural and ethnic backgrounds.  These students reported more negative attitudes about energy development and lower levels of community satisfaction than adults.

Activity 3: (5 minutes)

Take a minute to think about how you would experience a boomtown given the information above. Now, pick a friend who doesn’t live in your community, and consider how they might experience a boomtown differently?

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Your answers should touch on ideas such as:
• Population size and density
• Infrastructure
• Jobs and housing available
• Local history and culture