The Unconventional Boomtown: Updating the impact model to fit new spatial and temporal scales.


  • Jeffrey Jacquet South Dakota State University
  • David L. Kay Cornell University


The boomtown impact model developed by researchers in the 1970s implicitly assumes a spatially concentrated, finite resource will be extracted during a near-singular event (i.e. the "boom"), followed by a one-time "bust". This model has been criticized for its lack of a realistic longitudinal or macro-level perspective beyond the boom-and-bust, and seems unlikely to transfer successfully to the context of modern hydrocarbon exploitation. Technological innovations have unlocked massive reservoirs of natural gas in many parts of the world that challenge the notion of a geographically concentrated supply that can be quickly exploited. While as prices have plunged and natural gas is poised as an attractive fuel source for some time to come, energy prices are likely to retain their characteristic volatility. Hydrocarbon rich regions and the communities in them are likely to experience repeated waves of mini-booms and mini-busts over the course of decades, a scenario for which the classic one-time boom/bust model may not be well equipped. This development pattern holds profound implications for the types of impacts experienced by residents and the ways in which communities can prepare for them. In this article, we seek to both better define the sets of assumptions that predicate the boomtown impact model and suggest updates to incorporate more macro-level economic concerns. We review the boomtown impact model for assumptions of rurality and isolation, land ownership and wealth retention, spatial and temporal concentration, and economic drivers and industry behavior. We compare these assumptions against the new reality of unconventional natural gas development, drawing from impacted communities in the Marcellus Shale of Pennsylvania that have experienced some of the new types of impacts. We further describe ways in which the boomtown model may be updated to include a more complex energy industry and implications for research and rural community development.