Fracking Bringing Economic Growth to Pennsylvania, for Now

Workers change pipes at a Consol Energy horizontal gas drilling rig.
Mladen Antonov | AFP | Getty Images
Workers change pipes at a Consol Energy horizontal gas drilling rig.

Rural Pennsylvania was transformed into one of the nation's oil and gas boom regions virtually overnight thanks to abundant Marcellus Shale gas development.

Many people know the City of Williamsport, located in Lycoming County, as the site of the Little League World Series, but gas production helped make it the seventh fastest-growing community on a percentage basis in the U.S. And while that growth appears to be leveling off, the region looks set to ride out the boom for as long as the gas remains economic to produce.

Vince Matteo, Williamsport Chamber of Commerce President, was sitting in Mel's coffee shop as usual one morning in 2007, when the town commissioner came in and said there was a problem at the municipal building with long lines of people waiting for the computers used to look up property records. The people were landmen from oil and gas companies seeking to lease land that would give them access to the Marcellus Shale.

Fast-forward about five years and economic growth is visible. Williamsport was considered a bad area, according to someone raised in nearby Scranton, but it did not appear that way during Breaking Energy's recent visit. Matteo said there are now 150 companies operating in the county that were not present five years ago. About 125,000 people live in Lycoming County. The locals talked about job creation and the knock-on benefits to local businesses like hotels, restaurants and other businesses that are often associated with oil and gas booms.

A large influx of oil field workers from traditional producing regions like Texas and Louisiana brought cultural changes with them. "There are more BBQ places in Williamsport than ever before," said Matteo.

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You also can't buy a white pickup truck off the lot, "you have to order one in advance," he said. Indeed, a rig hand I spoke with at the hotel bar told me he had 3 trucks and would consider leaving the oil fields once he paid them off, though he doubted following through, saying the money and lifestyle associated with oil field work was addictive.

The local government and business leaders gathered to speak with journalists during a recent media tour extolled the benefits of natural gas. Lycoming and a neighboring county are about to receive 2 brand new gas-fired power plants, which is an $800 million dollar investment, they said. "It's sad New York is not seeing the light on this issue."

The growth appears to be "settling in, which is good for the community," said Matteo. Williamsport is considered the region's capital and has always had a diversified economy, he said. But it's hard to picture sustaining the current level of economic activity once the gas companies move on to the next big resource play. At least this won't be for several decades, according to most estimates.