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As the national election draws to a close, many eyes are on Pennsylvania, where the future of fracking could determine who lives in the White House this time next year.

Fracking is of vital concern in the western part of that state. It’s also an important part of West Virginia’s economy, but there’s little concern that it will affect who gets its five electoral votes.

“Fracking” is shorthand for a two-step process. First comes horizontal drilling, where drillers drill down vertically for a mile or more and then drill horizontally for a mile or more. One drill pad can accommodate several laterals and cover a wide area underground.

Then comes the horizontal fracturing, or fracking, where a mix of water and other materials uses pressure to create cracks in the rock. The sand and other proppants hold the cracks open to allow the gas trapped inside the rock to escape.

Fracking caused sudden growth in the amount of natural gas produced in Appalachia, notably West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania. It also caught the attention of people concerned about the environmental impacts of the process. As with any new process, there was plenty of misinformation mixed with accurate information on both sides of the basic question of whether fracking is good for society.

About a decade ago, most of the concern in the fracking areas of northern West Virginia had to do with the above-ground impacts of the process. Large trucks frequently traveled roads that were not wide enough or sturdy enough for them. They were on the road at the same time as school traffic. Most of the labor used in drilling was from out of state. Migrant drillers occupied much of the rental housing in fracking communities. Light and noise pollution from drill sites affected neighbors. There were questions of access to drilling sites. Safe disposal of wastewater was a concern. Questions of forced pooling, co-tenancy and similar legal matters occupied much of the Legislature’s time. Eventually many of them were worked out, but some remain.

Fracking brought the price of natural gas down significantly — enough to allow gas to supplant coal in electric power generation. One factor that keeps gas prices low has been the lack of pipeline capacity to get the glut of gas to major markets in the South.

For the most part, people in the three states mentioned above embraced fracking, while people in other states have opposed it. Western New York has reserves of frackable gas, but the political climate there opposes their development.

In terms of jobs, royalties and taxes, fracking has been good for West Virginia, Ohio and western Pennsylvania, but environmental concerns remain. President Donald Trump has not had to defend his stance on the topic, but the Democratic Party is so split on the issue that Joe Biden has had to be careful about what he says. Very careful.

How Pennsylvania goes in the presidential election could affect the future of the natural gas industry in West Virginia.

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