For the pro-frackers in Athens county and probably many who are undecided, the lure of jobs and other "benefits" from shale gas mining are significant considerations in favor of letting the gas companies commence the mining process. Those who favor this position contend that there will be jobs directly created in the mining operations themselves, along with a ripple effect generating jobs in other local businesses and regional industries. This is the job creation argument. The response from our side, the opposition, has largely been that these operations won't create as many jobs, especially jobs for local people, as the industry maintains. Among other studies and reports, Food and Water Watch recently released a report that contests the inflated job claims of the shale gas industry.

There is another angle on the jobs question, namely, job destruction. Ohio University is a major economic force and job creator in the county and in some other Southeastern Ohio areas. Here are some "ifs." If shale gas mining occurs in the Wayne National Forest and goes ahead on the 30,000-plus acres of private land that have been leased for fracking, one likely consequence is that our chief water sources will be diminished and probably contaminated. This point is based on two reasonable assumptions. First, the mining operations will use many millions of gallons of water from our chief water sources and thus reduce the water available for other purposes. Second, as much as 40 percent of the water used in fracking will come back to the surface along with the methane gas that is retrieved. It will be contaminated with toxic chemicals, perhaps radioactive materials, and other toxins not readily or inexpensably suitable for reuse or recycling. What then will the mining companies do with this huge quantity of filthy water?

Consider this. If the university cannot assure students and potential students that they will have clean water, enrollment will drop at Ohio University, employment at the university will go down, and overall the university will be at great risk. The same is true for the "high-tech" and "solar" businesses that are emerging and growing in Athens and tourism. Indeed, it applies to all or most businesses and to most residents of the county.

There are two irreconcilable interests and values involved in this very important discussion? On the one side, there are people and organizations concerned about the negative effects of shale gas mining on local ecological systems, the quality and availability of water, the integrity of forests, the potential negative jobs outcome, and community stability. On the other side, pro-industry groups dwell on the potential growth in jobs and other asserted economic "benefits."

I see four possible answers to the dilemma, some more likely than others. One is to just let the shale gas companies have their way. From the viewpoint of many economists and others, this "free market" approach is preferred. The evidence available on Athens indicates there are thousands of property owners who will try to adjust to the “market” and get the best leases they can, increasingly with the help of lawyers.

Two, regulate shale gas operations. The problem with this approach is that, in a stagnating state economy, regulation is likely to continue to be inadequate in protecting our water, land, and health. Nonetheless, state and federal regulation have the potential to reduce the harms if regulations are well articulated and enforced. It remains to be seen whether state agencies dealing with shale gas mining will be effective.

Three, slow down the process. The Athens Sierra Club, Buckeye Forest Council and other supporters were able last week to convince a key official at the Wayne National Forest to postpone a scheduled auction of leases for selected parts of the forest. The agency has responsibility for the surface areas of the park and has pledged to undertake a review of the potential impacts of shale gas mining in land under their authority. This opens up a number of possibilities, namely, that all or some of the proposed leases on federal land could be withdrawn.

Four, ban such mining from the county. Though desirable, this appears to be politically unfeasible, as reflected in the growing number of shale gas mines in the state and other states, with predictions of thousands upon thousands of additional mines in the forecasts.

Five, the best solution is to confront both the jobs and energy issues with massive federal government support for the development of solar and wind energy. This approach seems unlikely given the fiscal crises of government at virtually all levels. But it is nonetheless economically and ecologically sound. The key is to raise designated revenues for this approach. It could be done, given a more progressive Congress and White House, through various tax reforms such as a carbon tax, a financial transaction tax, a redirection of subsidies for the fossil fuel industries to the solar and wind industries, and/or increased taxes on the richest among us.