There is untold potential for the area lying underground

In the last few years, as we ap- proached the challenge of writing something uplifting for New Year’s Day, we have been able to grasp on one or two prospective developments with a sense of optimism. And this year is no exception.

Looking back, there is no doubt that 2008 had been a bad year, and on Jan. 1, 2009, we were looking forward to further investment in the General Motors Lordstown plant as the company made the transition from producing Chevrolet Cobalts and Pontiac G5s to production of an all new product, the Chevrolet Cruze. We also noted that Youngstown State University had marked its 100th anniversary, and we looked forward to its second century.

We also produced what turned out to be something of a clunker. While deploring the black eye given the Mahoning Valley by its former state attorney general, Marc Dann, we celebrated the positive spotlight that was shining on hometown hero Kelly Pavlik. “Without a doubt, Pavlik will continue to reflect positively on the area,” we enthused. Well, he did through 2009, but let’s just say we’re not prepared to make any “without a doubt” pronouncements about Pavlik for 2012.

A year of promise

In 2010, we foresaw a year of promise, anticipating the first of the Cruzes to roll off the assembly line and hoping that efforts by local officials to land a $650 million expansion of the V&M Star plant by the French company Vallourec would be a reality. We also noted that Youngstown State University would be getting a new president and would face new challenges.

Last New Year’s Day, the V&M Star expansion was a go, the Cruze was a sales success and Youngstown city schools had a new, dynamic superintendent, Dr. Connie Hathorn. Our New Year’s wish for a definitive end to the legal battles over the Oakhill Renaissance scandal was not to be.

Which brings us to New Year’s Day 2012.

There seems little doubt that the area’s immediate prospects for improved prosperity are tied to the process of and the extraction of gas and oil from Utica or Marcellus shale.

The first and most obvious of those examples is the expansion of V&M Star, which produces pipe for well drilling

Owners of larger tracts of land are already reaping bonanzas from oil and gas leases, although, as reporting by The Vindicator’s Karl Henkel has shown, signing leases is not to be entered into lightly.

A range of predictions

Estimates of the number of jobs that will be produced by Utica and Marcellus drilling vary widely, from industry claims of 200,000 to a university study’s estimate of 20,000.

Those numbers probably illustrate that no one yet knows what the job potential of drilling could be.

And, increasingly, there are claims and counter claims as to the safety and long-term effects of the extraction method known as fracking.

The controversy has literally shaken Youngstown, with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources ordering cessation of operations at a brine-injection well on Ohio Works Drive. This is not a fracking operation; it is a disposal well for by-product fluids from fracking wells at other sites.

While the ODNR says it has found no conclusive link between recent earthquakes and the D&L Energy Inc. well, its decision to shut it down seems prudent, especially in the light of the strongest earthquake by far emanating from near the well Saturday.

As it happens, even questions about the disposal well open another shale-gas related job opportunity in the Valley.

Patriot Water Treatment LLC is seeking state approval for its continued operation in Warren of a treatment plant for water from oil and gas drilling sites. Patriot would purify some of the drilling water, reducing some of the need for injection wells. Patriot can’t purify all drilling by-product water.

But if allowed to operate and expand, Patriot’s president, Andrew Blocksom, says his company could create 600 jobs.

Big plans

Meanwhile as reported Saturday by the Columbus Dispatch, Gov. John Kasich and Ohio legislators, including those from the Mahoning Valley, are actively seeking a Shell Chemicals ethane cracker plant that Shell is considering building near the Marcellus fields. That plant could generate 17,000 jobs, according to an estimate by the American Chemistry Council.

Those are some of the stories that lead us to conclude that Utica and Marcellus shale could hold enormous potential for the Mahoning Valley.

Chastened, perhaps, by our 2009 prediction about Kelly Pavlik’s bright future, we’re not inclined to make any unqualified statements about what shale gas could mean to the area. Obviously extracting minerals from the ground and disposing of hazardous by-products is not to be endorsed lightly.

But just as obviously, this industry has a potential that reaches far beyond the Mahoning Valley that cannot be ignored.

It’s something new to think about in the new year.

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