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Natural gas and unconventional oil jobs: 1.7 million and counting

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(Read caption) In this 2011 photo, hundreds of drilling pipes are stacked at a rail center in Gardendale, Texas. Energy companies have leased hundreds of thousands of acres in South Texas and are drilling oil and gas wells on the Eagle Ford shale formation. By 2020, according to one study, the unconventional oil field could account for $11.6 billion and nearly 68,000 jobs in a 24-county area.

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America's unconventional energy boom is creating a very conventional jobs boom.

"Unconventional" oil and natural gas drilling supports 1.7 million jobs, according to a new report. By 2020, it will support another 1.3 million new positions.

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The new unconventional extraction methods – called "fracking" – are creating so much energy so fast that by 2015 the United States will produce more oil from unconventional than conventional means, according to the new report from IHS Global Insight, an economic forecasting firm based in Lexington, Mass.

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The jobs boom isn't evenly distributed. Everyone knows about North Dakota, where fracking has created something of an oil rush. The state has had the most robust job growth over the past year and the lowest unemployment rate of any state in the US.

But fracking has also created a jobs boom in Pennsylvania, the center of growing natural gas extraction from the huge Marcellus formation. The boom in energy jobs is far less noticeable in Pennsylvania than North Dakota because the Keystone State has a far more diversified economy.

Overall, that growth has been tepid. Pennsylvania ranks only No. 37 among the 50 states in terms of job creation over the past year. But its mining sector has nearly doubled in the past three years, with 39,100 workers as of September, according to the Department of Labor. Almost all those new jobs have come from something other than coal mining – in other words, the new fracking industry.

Those jobs serve as an important multiplier. IHS estimates that only 20 percent of the 3 million workers supported by unconventional oil and gas in 2015 will be directly employed by oil and gas extraction companies. Another 30 percent will be employed by suppliers to those companies. Fully half will be other jobs generated by the spending of those workers.

That's the impact of good-paying jobs: They generate even more employment. And in the meantime, the natural gas they're producing is keeping electricity rates down for many Americans.

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Of course, the boom in oil, and, especially natural gas, has not been a positive for everyone. Big coal states have suffered as utilities move to replace coal with cheaper natural gas to generate electricity. While Pennsylvania has generated 15.2 million mining jobs outside the coal industry in the past three years, neighboring West Virginia has lost 5,400 jobs in the past year alone and now ranks dead last (along with Wisconsin) among the states in terms of overall jobs growth.