The Marcellus Shale field - the mammoth layer of deeply buried natural gas that runs across Pennsylvania and into neighboring Appalachian states - has promised to be an employment generator par excellence, creating tens of thousands of jobs each year in Pennsylvania, and as many as 100,000 jobs in 2010.
So here we are in 2010 with statewide employment down almost 200,000 jobs from three years ago. Where are all the Marcellus Shale jobs?
"There's a lot of wishful thinking out there," said Jannette Barth, president of J.M. Barth & Associates, a research and consulting firm in New York. "They're not [accurate] - or at least, they're biased. They leave a lot of things out."
Or, rather, put a lot of things in - like job numbers - that seem rather fantastical upon casual examination.
A report issued last year by Penn State's College of Earth and Mineral Sciences (and, notably, paid for by the Marcellus Shale Gas Committee) said the Marcellus Shale field helped create more than 29,000 jobs in Pennsylvania in 2008 and 48,000 jobs in 2009, and could create 107,000 jobs or more in 2010.
Kathy Klaber, newly hired director of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, has said that Marcellus drilling and ancillary industry could bring 110,000 jobs to Pennsylvania in 2010 in recent interviews, including with an online TV network called Clean Skies News.
Those eye-popping numbers are the ones invariably tossed around when boosters discuss the potential for the industry.
But a thin, 15-page report issued in late March by Ms. Barth contends that the job numbers have little foundation in reality.
Her report - "Unanswered Questions About the Economic Impact of Gas Drilling in the Marcellus Shale" - notes that employment in the oil and gas extraction sectors has not risen appreciably since 2004 in Pennsylvania or New York. "Also, as a percentage of state employment, employment in the oil and gas extraction industry has not changed very much" in Pennsylvania, her study said.
Her report seems to jibe with numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which show an increase of less than 3,000 new jobs in Pennsylvania's "mining and logging" division - from 20,800 jobs in February 2007 to 23,300 jobs in February 2010.
Another study, called the Marcellus Shale Workforce Needs Assessment (compiled for the Marcellus Shale Education & Training Center) estimates "the equivalent of between 5,000 and 13,000 workers could be directly be employed by the industry" in Pennsylvania by 2010.
Yet if you take a close look at the Penn State study from last year - an updated version is due out this spring - the numbers match up quite well.
Of all the 110,000 jobs to be "created" by Marcellus shale drilling this year, only a few thousand will actually be in mining. In 2008, for example, the study estimated that of the 29,000 jobs created in Pennsylvania, only 2,101 were actually drilling- or mining-related jobs.
The needs assessment says a single well creates 11.53 full-time, direct jobs over the course of a year. "Unfortunately, the vast majority of these 'drilling phase' jobs do not compound each year; thus, the total work force may increase or decrease depending on how many wells are drilled each year."
And the rest? Those are created by direct spending but in separate industries, or by "indirect" or "induced" spending. "Induced" jobs are said to come about, for example, when the guy newly employed in the drilling industry goes out to dinner and a movie, thereby supporting the service industry.
Robert Watson, the Carnegie-born emeritus professor of petroleum and natural gas engineering who helped compile the Penn State study, said the apparent disconnect between the actual drilling jobs and the rest of the projected jobs impact wasn't really all that disconnected.
For example, Marcellus drillers, in 2008, spent $270 million on drilling activities, but nearly as much on new construction, $207 million.
"The amount of steel being generated by these wells is enormous," Dr. Watson said. Drills, pipelines and more - it all adds up to about "10 tractor-trailer loads of steel per well," he said. That's why, in 2008, when there were 2,100 mining and drilling jobs created, there were an estimated 3,600 jobs created, or sustained, in construction, and another 162 in manufacturing.
But were all those nondrilling jobs actually created in a real sense, given that Pennsylvania has lost construction and manufacturing jobs in drastic numbers since 2007? Or is it just that jobs might have been retained, or a layoff averted?
"There are many, many new jobs that are created," Dr. Watson said. "But where we would show [in our study] a new hire for steel, maybe the mill would say, 'Let's just increase the overtime, rather than go out and hire anybody.' "
To the degree that drilling jobs exist, are the bulk of them even going to Pennsylvanians?
Pennsylvania workers simply aren't trained to do the actual drilling jobs, at least not in large numbers. That's why, for now, so many roughneck and rig crews rotate in and out of Pennsylvania but are based elsewhere. Jobs, while being performed here, might be appearing on Texas labor sheets.
The Marcellus Shale Workforce Needs Assessment said many of the energy and drilling firms surveyed for the report thought it was "hard to find workers with the experience needed" here.
"I think that's a fair assessment," Dr. Watson said. But "the reality of it is, as the skill set of Pennsylvania workers improves, it doesn't make any sense to have a rig hand come from Houston, Texas, when you can find somebody from Greensburg to do the same job.
"These jobs are going to be with us for 100 years. Over that 100 years, those jobs are going to be taken by people who live in Pennsylvania."
The Penn State study included one interesting caveat: "Neither the Department of Energy and Mineral Engineering at Penn State nor the Marcellus Shale Committee, nor any person acting on behalf thereof, makes any warranty or representation, express or implied, with respect to the accuracy, completeness or usefulness of the information contained in the report."
But, as Dr. Watson noted jokingly, "I can't seem to get PennFuture to sponsor any of my work." PennFuture is an environmental and conservation lobbying organization.
Bill Toland: email@example.com or 412-263-2625.