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A team of economists has found that the oil shale boom in the United States has had large political effects: specifically, it has led to a shift in votes to Republican candidates in counties where the drilling has taken place.
In counties and U.S. congressional districts that were home to the burst in oil and gas development after 2003, the political “contrast is stark,” the professors write in a new paper. “Following these shale booms, support for local politicians shifts toward Republican candidates, and the voting behavior of elected politicians becomes sharply more conservative across a wide range of issues,” write the professors from Bocconi University in Milan, Italy, Boston College and the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.
Shale drilling started in earnest in 2003 and it drove up wages and income in a large number of mostly rural counties. By 2012, over 80 percent of the House seats in shale areas were held by Republicans, up from less than 50 percent in 1996.
“On balance, political change associated with shale development represents among the most significant changes in the U.S. political system in the last decade,” the authors write.
The study considered shale counties in seven states: Arkansas, Louisiana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Texas and West Virginia.
The shift in votes in these shale counties led to 17 congressional seats changing from Democrat to Republican. That accounts for nearly half the Republican majority in Congress as of today.
The authors found a similar shift in voting in both gubernatorial and presidential elections.
Shale development increased the Republican share of the votes in counties represented by Democrats. Shale development had no effect on the vote in areas that were represented by Republicans.
The shale boom led to a change in ideology in energy counties. Voters in shale counties support Republican candidates who are more conservative across the board — from social welfare to labor — not just energy-related issues.
“We find, consistent with the election results, very strong evidence that shale booms reduce support for liberal causes and increase support for conservative ones,” they write.
The professors come to this conclusion by comparing shale counties to nearby counties that had no shale boom. Shale development had large-scale economic effects on counties. The authors write that production companies were spending up to $128 million on land, labor and equipment to develop a single square mile of shale formation.
Did the shale boom really lead to a Republican takeover in these counties? Many political scientists would say that these counties were conservative to begin with, that shale didn’t make them this way. Now, of course, the economy in shale areas is moving the opposite direction, as drilling rigs are idled in the face of much lower energy prices.