NEW CASTLE — The quest for jobs and economic development is a common concern in Lawrence County.
Politicians make assorted promises related to the subject, and the public is constantly demanding action.
Most of the time, the reality of economic development is somewhat nebulous. In Lawrence County, as in any community, things are always happening. Sometimes new businesses open, sometimes they close. Sometimes existing ones expand, other times they have layoffs.
Occasionally, however, something really big happens that causes people to sit up and take notice. For years now, there has been talk of a harness track and casino to be built in Mahoning Township, which promises jobs and spin-off development. But after more than 10 years, the end result remains uncertain.
Meanwhile a substantial impact to the community has come from development related to the shale gas industry. Landowners with lots of acreage have benefited from oil and gas leases — even if there is no follow-up activity.
And while actual drilling in the county is still in its infancy, it’s presumed that local people will make money from gas and even oil extraction. How much, however, is far from certain.
Plus, there is assorted offshoot economic activity related to shale drilling. Local companies and workers produce pipeline and other equipment. Trucks haul fracking water. And even people who own rental units can benefit from leasing properties to drilling firms with employees from out of the area.
Much of this sort of economic activity is diffuse, meaning it shows up a little bit here and a little bit there, often with minimal notice. But overall, it has brought millions of dollars into the community with more to come.
But there is one shale-related project being considered that has the potential to have a massive economic impact on this region. It’s the cracker plant being discussed for a site in Monaca.
Even though the facility would be located in Beaver County, this community would benefit — not only through the potential for jobs at the site, but also through an economic ripple effect as support industries are developed. Simply put, the cracker plant would translate into thousands of jobs for the region.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that there has been no final commitment on the part of Shell to build this plant. Even for a major oil company, this project is a substantial undertaking, and a variety of factors will go into the final determination.
Among these is whether it’s more cost effective to build a plant in this region or rely on pipelines to ship so-called wet gas elsewhere.
To some degree, pipelines will be needed, even if the plant is built in Monaca. But a system that makes it convenient to move gas south to the Gulf of Mexico will make the Monaca cracker plant less likely. It’s a matter we will be watching.