Shale-gas drilling has potential to affect aspects of life in America from immigration and trade policy to education, experts gathered in Pittsburgh recently. But the government, industry and labor experts cautioned that public policy debates involving a spectrum of stakeholders need to occur in order for the United States to reap the full potential of its shale gas. “With the return of affordable natural gas and natural gas liquids in the United States, the whole world picture has changed. This is probably the single greatest opportunity we have to restore the middle class in America,” Peter Molinaro said at the Consumer Energy Alliance’s Pennsylvania Energy and Manufacturing Summit.
Molinaro, vice president and senior advisor for government affairs for Dow Chemical Co., said Dow reversed a decision to close an ethylene cracker plant on the Gulf Coast and began planning for a second plant when company officials realized the wealth of shale gas discoveries. The shale boom has put Pennsylvania in competition with Alaska and Louisiana to be the country’s second-biggest gas producer. Pennsylvania drillers produced 1.4 trillion cubic feet of natural gas from the shale in the first half of 2013, according to the Department of Environmental Protection. State records show companies drill about 100 horizontal wells a month into the Marcellus, and they are now targeting the Utica shale, a deeper geologic layer. The industry has 36,100 employees in Pennsylvania.
In addition to the chemical sector, industries such as aluminum, fabricated metals, fertilizer, foundries, glass, iron and steel “have been advantaged by this,” Molinaro said. A manufacturing rebound and the need to build infrastructure could require the United States to reconsider immigration policies to fill workforce needs, industry and labor experts said. David Gornewicz, an organizer for Ironworkers International Union, said the workforce is not prepared to meet emerging demands for skilled construction workers, research engineers and other positions. “One thing that could stall the whole resurgence of energy and the manufacturing renaissance is a shortage of skilled manpower,” Gornewicz said, citing an estimated coming demand in the Gulf for 400,000 trained construction workers.
Robert Powelson, chairman of the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, said shale gas is opening opportunities beyond U.S. borders. He recently traveled to South America on a trade mission and found brisk international demand. “In Chile they talked to us about getting gas into the market there. They begged us to provide them opportunities around the Marcellus,” he said.
Others at the summit voiced concern about proposals to export gas to Europe, Asia and South America. “Our organization sees it as a competitive advantage, as long as you don’t give it away to our competitors,” said United Steelworkers representative Ike Glitten, the labor co-chair of the Pennsylvania Steel Alliance. James Cooper, senior petroleum advisor to the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, said the organization will kick off a national initiative next month to unify policy groups, environmental advocates, academia, labor and industry on policy issues. “We need to shift the discussion to manufacturing and have a national-level discussion supportive of bringing manufacturing back,” Cooper said. “For the good of the country, we have to find that balance and we have to find it within two years, or we have to kiss this opportunity goodbye.”