Academic journal article Journal of Rural Social Sciences

Perceptions of Risk and Reward of Rapid Energy Exploration in Rural Kansas: Are Older Adults Different? *

Academic journal article Journal of Rural Social Sciences

Perceptions of Risk and Reward of Rapid Energy Exploration in Rural Kansas: Are Older Adults Different? *

Article excerpt

Kansas is often viewed by those outside the state as open prairie devoted to agricultural production. However, Kansas has a long and active history of energy exploration and production, with oil exploration beginning in the late 19th century in some of the same rural areas in the state crossed by the great cattle drive trails. Beginning in 2010, there was a dramatic increase in oil and gas exploration activity in south-central Kansas, primarily because of the ability to use hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling as the method of exploration. This activity reached a peak in the state in 2014, with the bulk of exploration occurring in Harper County.

Harper County is typical of many rural counties in Kansas: it is sparsely populated, predominantly white, and has a higher than average proportion of residents age 65 and older. In 2014, the population of the county was estimated at 5,818, or about 7.5 persons per square mile compared with the state average of 34.9. The current population is about 75 percent of the population in 1970. This decline is typical of rural counties throughout Kansas because of out-migration of younger adults to more urban areas combined with mortality of the larger, older population. In 2014, about 22 percent of the county population was age 65 and older compared with about 14 percent statewide. About 96 percent of the population is white compared with about 87 percent statewide (United States Census Bureau 2016). Harper County sits squarely above the Mississippian Lime, a large limestone formation that extends from Oklahoma through south-central Kansas, ending in the northwest corner of the state.

The permeability and shallowness of the formation allow for exploration for oil and gas using horizontal drilling with less cost than in other types of deposits, including shale or sand, although horizontal drilling is more expensive than traditional vertical drilling (Evans and Newell 2013). This opportunity attracted the attention of large energy companies with significant resources, including Shell Oil and Chesapeake Energy. In 2010, a land rush led by these companies began to acquire oil and gas leases from landowners.

Among many residents, the interest of these large companies spawned economic optimism and expectation of rapid population growth, especially after seeing the increase in economic activity as a result of oil and gas exploration in other rural areas of the United States. However, rewards and risks are often spread unequally during boom periods, and different community contexts affect how these are perceived. Our aim was to examine contextual differences in perceptions of community impact of sudden expansion of energy exploration in rural Kansas. Because of the large proportion of older residents in rural areas of the state, we were especially concerned with whether their perceptions of reward and risk from exploration activity differed from other stakeholders. Our study extends previous energy exploration studies in rural areas by its focus on the perceptions of older adults who are often a higher proportion of the population in rural locations, and because its participants are located in a previously unstudied and often overlooked area of the country's energy boom.


Energy Exploration in Kansas

As noted earlier, Kansas has a long history of oil and gas exploration. Harper County has many years of experience in conventional oil and gas exploration with smaller, relatively local independent oil companies. In 2011, oil and gas production began to increase significantly over previous years as a result of the use ofhydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling (often called "unconventional extraction" in the research literature) by large national producers. However, worldwide oil prices reached their highest level in 2013 and then began a dramatic decline. Wells permitted and drilled in Kansas peaked in 2014 and dropped dramatically in 2015. Over 7,000 wells were permitted in 2014 but only 2,304 in 2015. …

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