Can Natural Gas Production Be a Medium-Sized Deal?

Kate MacKenzie at the Financial Times has a great two-part series (one, two)—with more to come—titled “Natural Gas: The Hot Air Case.” The goal is to debunk what I guess has become new conventional wisdom that cheap, domestically produced natural gas in the United States will transform the whole economy and change everything.

It won’t. In particular, it seems exceptionally unlikely that natural gas being cheaper in the United States than abroad is going to lead to the creation of a whole ton of high-paying manufacturing jobs for high school graduates. All that said, I think there’s a strong case that this is at least a medium-sized deal. Not so much because producing all this natural gas is going to lead to any enormous secondary consequences, but just because any time you’re creating a whole new industry you’re doing something pretty important. We’ve got maybe 30,000 more people working directly in oil and gas extraction than we had before the dawning of the Great Recession and almost 70,000 more people than we had at the sector’s nadir. To an extent that’s come at the expense of coal mining, but we still have more than 15,000 coal miners than we did 10 years ago. And the thing about new employment from new or revived industries is that it supports a fair amount of secondary employment—extra jobs for retail workers and cooks and waitresses and so forth in the fracking boom towns. That’s not nothing, and it’s perfectly adequate to explain politicians’ enthusiasm for it and fervent desire to believe that the ecological impact is not so bad or even positive.

If some foreign company announced tomorrow that it wanted to build two new factories a year in America with each factory employing 3,000 people and that they planned to keep on doing this for a span of years, that’d be a pretty big deal. Political leaders would be excited. But would it transform the American economy? Change everything? Of course not.