Four panelists see evidence that Marcellus Shale drilling is starting to transform Williamsport - once home to lumber barons and industrial giants - again into a boomtown.
Jason Fink, executive vice president of the Williamsport/Lycoming Chamber of Commerce; Seth Alberts, CEO of Alberts Spray Solutions, a subsidiary of Ralph S. Alberts Co.; Larry Allison Jr., executive secretary and part-owner of Allison Crane & Rigging; and Keith S. Kuzio, president and CEO of Larson Design Group, offered their opinions Thursday night on the impact that natural gas exploration is having.
The quartet sat before a live audience and participated in the discussion as the "State of Pennsylvania" was broadcast live via satellite from the Pennsylvania College of Technology on WVIA-TV.
Pennsylvania College of Technology hosted WVIA’s “State of Pennsylvania” Thursday night. Four panelists — from left, Jason Fink, Seth Alberts, Larry Allison Jr. and Keith S. Kuzio — answered questions and gave opinions on how Lycoming County has been transformed by the Marcellus Shale industry.
Questions focused on who's making money and where it's going? Is it good news for Lycoming County, and who doesn't think so?
Correspondent Erin Anastos periodically fed questions regarding economic and environmental impacts.
Fink said the most notable difference is businesses that have been here for a while - some of which were struggling financially before - have fit their talents, services and products into the Marcellus Shale industry.
Two years ago, Alberts said, his company sought ways to get involved after spending 40 years in the seating pad device business that served the amusement park industry. The ingenuity at the company led to the creation of a more durable, environmentally friendly material that is used as a containment liner at well sites, he said.
Allison's business is growing by providing setups for cranes, drill rigs, relocation of rigs and hauling water to well sites. He said about 100 jobs have been created and he anticipates between 30 and 50 more.
Kuzio said his company was working on wind farm and renewable energy technologies before the Marcellus Shale play took off.
Today, he said, corporate growth has been seen in terms of providing survey, engineering and administrative support services. The company aids in providing water resource management for impoundments and new technology that recycles and reuses fracking water.
The panelists viewed the underground deposits of shale as long-term play sustainable for several years to come.
"We see this as a generational play," Fink said.
New technological advancements will make it easier to mine gas and extend the life of the wells, he added.
A question of just who is benefitting from the jobs came up and Fink said of the 300 employees at Halliburton in Montgomery, some 85 percent are state residents who are paid family-sustaining wages. Subsidiaries are stemming off the larger corporate giants, too.
"Their goal is to hire Pennsylvania people," Fink said. "To get folks trained so they don't have to fly them across country because that is not cost effective ... they want them living here."
The latest unemployment figures in Lycoming County reveal joblessness at 7.4 percent, down from the previously publicized 10 percent and higher.
Educational and training opportunities exist in places such as Pennsylvania College of Technology with the Marcellus Shale Education Training Center. Career expos have assisted thousands of job-seekers.
"We've done three of them," Fink told the audience.
Career and job fairs are opportunities to aggregate people for interviews, to hand over applications for employment and to familiarize themselves with the opportunities, Fink said.
The panelists were asked about potential problems associated with projects such as compressor stations, water withdraw plants and trucks overloading highways. Local sites mentioned included a water withdraw plant proposed along Sylvan Dell Road in Armstrong Township and sites in Loyalsock and Mifflin townships.
Allison indicated the play also should be sustainable based on the proximity of the users.
"We're within 3 1/2 hour radius" of (a large percentage of the U.S. population), he said. "Other shale plays don't have that population."
"We're concerned about sustainable development of Marcellus Shale as a resource," Kuzio said. "We don't want to over build and don't want to over develop."
He agreed with Allison the proximity to market and costs associated with transmission because of the closeness keep the play viable longer.
Other factors to consider are the rising cost of crude oil, the president and Congress recognizing the opportunity to tap this resource and the impact it is having on local rail service, which transports such products such as fracking sand over the rail and reduces some use of over-the-road truck traffic.
A woman asked about the impact of Marcellus Shale on the rental community. She said she was saving to buy a house and wanted to be in the Williamsport Area School District but added rental rates are soaring because many of gas well workers can pay the higher rents.
"It is an issue that needs to be addressed," Fink said. "We need to get developers to step into this market, banking to assist to get capital to undertake construction projects. Right now, there is not an answer."
He said the chamber wasn't in the business of regulating landlords or preventing price gouging.
Kuzio, in response to an assertion that extractable industries don't have a good environmental legacy in Pennsylvania, said baseline data does need to be collected and benchmarks established to see how the community is now compared to how it is after the drilling occurs.
A welder called in and complained that some service industry workers' invoices aren't being paid. Allison addressed that question by saying most of the companies require master service agreements.
This week's substantial $1 million-plus fine against Chesapeake Energy in Bradford County and Cabot in Dimock were examples that state environmental regulations are here and the state has stepped in, as it should whether it be violations in the Marcellus Shale drilling industry or other manufacturers.
There was some call for the natural gas to be used by transportation systems, industrial fleets and conversion of combustion engines to natural gas operated vehicles, but it would require a natural gas fueling station and technology not developed or implemented locally.
A question as to what small businesses are seeing increases in commerce as a result included a description of a small barber shop where there now are waiting lines to get a haircut.
Several other adjunct companies or spinoffs benefitting from the industry, include dry cleaners, laundry services, janitorial companies, hose companies and rigging businesses.
One man asked whether these companies could envision ways to go beyond state regulations and place facilities where they have the least impact on the communities.
Kuzio tried to answer that: "The industry is required to operate within the regulations in the municipal planning code and they try to listen."
As an engineer, he said, he believes in an ethical standard and always puts health, safety and welfare of citizens first.
"All of the players want this to be sustainable," he said.