The resource curse is coming to town

The discovery of oil deposits has, in many ways, been a curse for Nigeria's Ogoniland province, which has been plagued by environmental degradation and civil conflict (courtesy of Reuters).

The discovery of oil deposits has, in many ways, been a curse for Nigeria’s Ogoniland region, which has been plagued by environmental degradation and civil conflict (courtesy of Reuters).

Oil and natural gas from shale will be a “game changer” for Ohio, one that “has given fresh life to energy development,” according to Jack Gerard, the president & CEO of the American Petroleum Institute. The Plain Dealer has matter-of-factly stated that the boom in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in states like Ohio is “expected to create thousands of jobs and add billions to the state’s economy.”

That expanded oil and gas production will generate myriad economic benefits is largely taken for granted in most circles. For the most part, opponents of fracking for oil and gas have focused almost exclusively on the potential environmental consequences, such as water and air pollution, radioactivity, and an increased risk of earthquakes.

But a new study from Headwaters Economics has thrown some cold water on this conventional wisdom. What if, instead of bringing socioeconomic development to energy-rich areas, oil and gas production could actually make these communities worse off?

The natural resource curse

This concept, the so-called “natural resource curse,” has long been studied in international relations and environmental circles. Several studies have demonstrated a strong connection between natural resource abundance and stymied economic growth on an international level, particularly in the developing world. In a 1995 paper, Sachs & Warner concluded that reliance on natural resource dependence can decrease economic growth by around 1% per year.

natural resource dependence and growth rates

This figure, from Sachs & Warner (2001), charts the relationship between natural resource dependence and economic growth rates from 1970-1989. As it suggests, those countries whose economies depend heavily on natural resource exports had lower real growth rates during this period, and vice versa.

There are several reasons (PDF) why natural resource wealth and dependence could harm socioeconomic development. I will outline three below.

First, a boom in natural resource extraction can increase price levels throughout the economy (PDF), raising a country’s exchange rate. As a result, resource wealthy states tend to have higher costs for export goods, reducing their competitiveness on global markets.

Secondly, higher real wages can create an incentive for individuals to forgo employment in other areas to pursue opportunities in the extractives industries. This reliance upon extractives can crowd out investment in manufacturing, limiting the ability of the industry to become more efficient over time. These outcomes can harm innovation and entrepreneurship (PDF), which may create long-lasting ramifications for the economy.

Thirdly, resource-dependent countries are highly susceptible to rent-seeking behavior and the pathologies that can come along with it, such as political violence, up to and including civil conflict. As de Soysa and Binningsbø (paywall) put it:

Resource rents apparently create factional political states, where rent capture allows politicians to survive by dispensing rents, rather than making hard choices about reform. Political survival dictates profligacy and waste, rather than providing public goods.

Rather than investing in important public goods, leaders of resource-rich states can simply make direct payments to important elites or buy off potential challengers. Resource revenues also tend to accrue to state, rather than staying in source communities. As a result, while some actors will benefit from extraction, the communities on the ground tend to suffer the effects without reaping the rewards.

The lure or resource rents can also drive groups to try to capture control of the state. As a result, a plethora of studies have shown that states dependent on natural resources experience higher rates of internal political violence (paywall) and a greater risk of experiencing civil war.

six western states oil and gas income levels

The study explores the effects of oil and gas development on socioeconomic development in six states from 1980-2011 (courtesy of Headwaters Economics).

The resource curse comes to the United States

But while the negative consequences of resource dependence are well-known for the developing world, the same cannot be said for the Untied States. In order to investigate the long-term impacts of using oil & gas extraction as an economic development policy, Headwaters analyzed the effects of an early 1980s oil boom in six Western states: Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming. The study explored the long-term impacts of the boom on social and economic development from 1980-2011, analyzing data from 207 counties in the states.

While many observers consider the oil and gas boom to be a positive development in the West – the curren oil boom in the Bakken shale has helped lower North Dakota’s unemployment rate to just over 3% – Headwaters’ findings challenge this perception. Rather than contributed to sustained, positive outcomes, these counties actually experienced many of the same consequences of the resource curse that I outlined earlier.

First, the authors found that the counties most dependent on oil and gas extraction actually had lower levels of per capita income during this period. These counties saw per capita income levels decrease by $7,000, on average. One reason for this outcome may be that boom towns typically see the cost of living skyrocket in the short-term, which can raise prices and offset income gains. In Fort McMurray, the heart of Alberta’s tar sands industry, for instance, the population has tripled in recent decades. The formerly rural area, which is now bursting at the seams, has the highest housing prices in Alberta, and is deficient in 70 of 72 quality-of-life indicators.

Secondly, the study suggests that the resource sector can have a crowding out effect. The lure of the extractives industries, which have lower education requirements, tends to lower the percentage of adults with a college education. Those counties that were most heavily invested in oil and gas had, on average, 2.5% fewer college-educated adults than the rest of the sample counties. And the environmental consequences of resource extraction are well known.

Thirdly, the authors note that “the longer a county has been specialized on oil and gas, the higher the county’s crime rate.” This outcome would seem to reflect the fact that natural resource dependence leads to rent-seeking behavior and increased levels of violence. Most oil and gas boom towns are chock full of young men. The flood of young men into the Bakken shale (where they outnumber women by nearly 2-1 in some areas) has driven up crime rates by as much as one-third in Montana and North Dakota. Many women have reported being sexual harassed and feeling increasingly threatened due to the changing demographics.

The study fails to examine the environmental and public health impacts of resource dependence. However, other studies have shown that coal-mining communities in Appalachia have significantly higher adult and child mortality rates (PDF) than other communities in the region.

While the authors of the Headwaters study are careful to point out its limitations – causality cannot be proven and the results are unique to the sample areas – it does provide a cautionary tale to officials who are hoping to cash in on their region’s natural resource endowments.

Oil and gas extraction can be a way to jump start a stagnant economy in the short-term, as the study suggests. But states need to ensure that they are taxing resource extraction appropriately and investing these tax revenues in public goods for the communities on the front lines. Though bending over backwards for the oil and gas industries – as Ohio’s Republican lawmakers appear all too eager to do – may benefit some well-connected individuals, many more in these communities will suffer in both the short- and long-term.

Oil and gas deposits can be important endowments, but they don’t constitute a real development strategy. States need to think twice before putting all their eggs in one basket.

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