Researchers are looking at whether money from the Marcellus Shale natural gas boom helps children and families in regions where companies are drilling.
Penn State University sociology professor Molly Martin said there is a unique opportunity to compare northeastern Pennsylvania communities that have experienced the boom during the last six years with nearby ones in New York state that haven't.
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New York has a moratorium on shale drilling, which uses hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to break underground rocks apart and free the gas, while Pennsylvania has become the second-largest producer in the nation. Some families in fracking communities get millions of dollars in royalties, many get tens of thousands of dollars, but others get nothing.
"This is an opportunity like none other," Martin said.
The research will compare government-collected data that doesn't identify people. That includes data on crime, schools, economics, childhood obesity, teen pregnancies and general state tax records on royalty income.
Pamela Morris, director of the Institute for Human Development and Social Change at New York University, said that the research is unusual in two respects. Most previous studies looked at how modest increases in income — say $1000 — helped families living in poverty. The Marcellus region has many middle-income families, and the people who benefit from drilling get much larger rewards. But only landowners who sign leases get royalties.
In general when people get more money, they typically invest more in their children, Morris said.
The study "stands a good chance of revealing something useful," Gordon Dahl, a professor of economics at the University of California-San Diego, said in an email.
Dahl has studied how family income affects children. He said if the money goes directly to families, "our results would suggest that this should help children do better in school." But he also noted that other differences between the New York and Pennsylvania communities could impact the results.
Drilling booms also have had a downside, including increased heavy truck traffic that can destroy roads and lead to more fatal accidents. Communities also have struggled with increased crime and pollution, as well as tension between those who get the huge royalties and those who don't.
Martin said the New York-based Russell Sage Foundation provided a $150,000 grant for the study Preliminary results could be available in about a year.