CASEY S. ELLIOTT, ATHENS MESSENGER
With oil and gas exploration in its initial stages in Southeast Ohio, Athens County institutions are considering curricular changes to meet a potential boom in demand for workers who specialize in those fields.
Hocking College, Tri-County Adult Career Center and Ohio University are all keeping tabs on the potential oil and gas boom in Southeast Ohio, and a Granville nonprofit is in the process of gathering information that could outline curricular changes for oil and gas professions at those — and many other — institutions statewide.
“We’re taking all the potential job positions we think will be able to be filled in the next three to five years, identifying exactly which institutions have what programs. And then from there, what we’re going to do is match those with certain industry standards,” said Rhonda Reda, executive director of the Ohio Oil and Gas Energy Education Program.
Established in 1998, the Ohio Oil and Gas Energy Education Program is a nonprofit statewide organization and public outreach program. The nonprofit provides a variety of programs throughout the state, focusing on teacher workshops, scholarships, student education, firefighter training, industry workforce development, research, and landowner and guest speaker programs, according to its website.
Reda said the organization is looking at the overall production and development of the oil and gas industries in the state in an attempt to determine what certification and degree programs might be needed in these fields. She said the organization is not looking specifically at hydraulic fracturing — or fracking — jobs because those positions are generally filled by highly trained petroleum engineers and that instruction is obtained elsewhere.
“We’ve got great community colleges and technical schools around the state,” she said. “We want to, in a sense, partner with them, establish a curriculum that meets some of those industry standards, or help them adapt their systems already in place.”
Reda said there are an estimated 75 different types of professions involved in oil and gas well drilling and production.
Reda said the Ohio Oil and Gas Energy Education Program is working with several groups, including the Ohio Board of Regents, JobsOhio, OhioMeansJobs.com and community college and technical college representatives, to determine what types of instruction are needed and to identify programs in place across the state that may need to be updated. She said she expects the information gathering portion of the process to wrap up in January, and she hopes the curriculum to support this training can start being put in place by the end of 2012. Some professions that might be involved include pipeline welders, diesel mechanics and well tenders.
“(Well tenders) are folks that take care of the wells long after they’ve been drilled,” she said. “At the end of the day, most people don’t realize that the drilling is temporary. For long-term jobs, we have to have local people maintaining those wells, so we are putting a heavy emphasis on the production side.”
Reda said the average life of oil and gas wells is 20 to 40 years for each well, and Ohio currently has about 64,000 active wells. Reda said the Ohio Oil and Gas Energy Education Program is projecting another 2,800 wells will be drilled in the Utica shale region, which includes Athens County, within the next five years.
If the educational programs can be put in place quickly, it would fit the timeline of the oil and gas industry, which is in the leasing phase of its operations in this region, she said.
At the Tri-County Adult Career Center in Nelsonville, the potential job training is something staff has begun discussing, Director Kim McKinley said. She said staff at the career center have attended meetings with representatives of the oil and gas industry who have indicated training will be needed, but nothing specific about what is needed has been determined, yet.
“Once (the oil and gas industry) gets a pretty good picture as to what’s available in post-secondary training providers in the region, they’ll let us know how we need to specialize or customize what we offer to meet their industry needs. Then when there are training gaps, we will create programs for it,” she said. “We’re listening, we’re participating, we want to be ready. We want to be able to satisfy the need and ramp the workforce up because it will mean opportunities for jobs in this region.”
Reda said an economic impact study released in September estimated that 200,000 jobs could be created in the next three to five years as a result of the oil and gas boom.
But a study led by an Ohio State University professor predicts oil and natural gas drilling in Ohio will create far fewer jobs than the estimated 200,000 the industry has forecast.
The report released in mid-December by economics professor Mark Partridge and his team expects 20,000 jobs to be generated by the development of energy locked in rock deep beneath eastern Ohio, The Columbus Dispatch reported. Those jobs would be created directly and indirectly from drilling.
“We need to be setting realistic expectations,” said Partridge, who specializes in urban and rural development.
While Ohio University is keeping tabs on the oil and gas industry, it’s unlikely that the institution will develop a four-year degree program specifically for these fields. But existing classes or electives may be adjusted to take the possible oil and gas boom into account.
“The idea of developing a degree specifically centered around fracking would be an extremely narrow specialization,” said Dr. Valerie Young, department chairwoman for chemical and biomolecular engineering and an associate professor at Ohio University. “So the question would be, what do all those people do in 10 years with a degree in fracking?”
Young said there are challenges involved in extracting shale gas safely and economically, and meeting those challenges requires the same fundamentals learned in chemical engineering, mechanical engineering, civil engineering and geology classes. As a result, she suspects any curricular changes at OU will focus on offering electives in specifics of fracking technology, or the environmental, social and economic challenges that can result from it. Young said she could see graduate research conducted with a focus on the business, and OU’s own researchers have knowledge to could be helpful to the industry.
“In terms of research here at the university, we also have the facilities and expertise that are really well placed to assist the industry and the whole idea of shale gas exploration and extraction done responsibly,” she said, adding the university has an institute for corrosion and multiphase technology that conducts research on conventional oil and gas extraction. “If there really is going to be a shale gas extraction boom in this area, that kind of expertise is very transferable.”
Hocking College spokeswoman Laura Alloway said the college is considering the potential educational needs of the oil and gas industry, but is also looking at the environmental impacts.
“Similar to other individuals and organizations in the area, Hocking College is carefully and thoughtfully considering the impact and opportunities the business of fracking could bring to the region,” Alloway said. “However, because of Hocking’s emphasis on natural resources education, our goal would be to balance any program offerings to prepare students for careers in this industry with a need to maintain focus on the environmental impacts.
“We have not concluded if or when Hocking College would offer these programs, but it is certainly a topic of consideration,” she added.
Environmental concerns are an issue Young has as well, but she also personally believes the economic benefits cannot be ignored.
“There are some people who seem to feel they are automatically against the idea of shale gas production because of the environmental concerns, and other people look at those concerns and say the problem here is, let’s make sure we do this correctly. This is an energy resource we can’t afford to pass up, but at the same time, if they do a poor job, that is not good for anybody,” she said.
Young said a lot of the shale gas operations would require old wells to be properly repaired and resealed before any work could begin, and Young sees that as a positive.
“This is an opportunity to get some correction and remediation done that otherwise wouldn’t get done because there is no economic incentive to do it,” she said, adding she believes there is an opportunity in “doing (extraction) right, rather than trying to prevent it from happening at all.
“This is an opportunity for people here to be employed, and at the same time, to have control over the way their land is used and the kind of technology used here,” she added. “It is a great opportunity for this region to be noticed. It has a lot of positive qualities, and it’s been too often overlooked.