Gas boom starts to hit home from residents of southeastern Pa.

Matt Richmond
May 27, 2014

In the past few years, the Marcellus Shale has rapidly become one of the most productive gas plays on the planet. But for many people in Southeastern Pennsylvania, the boom has been out-of-sight and out-of-mind. Until now.

Pennsylvania’s most populous region, the southeast, is beginning to experience the tradeoffs long familiar to those who live on top of the Shale—lots of job opportunities and lots of disruption.

“I mean we all know what’s going on in the Marcellus Shale. But it seems like it’s far away—not that we don’t think about it—but now it’s here. It’s at our door, and you know, it’s frightening," says Sherry Wolfe, Lebanon County resident. She's upset about plans to build a new natural gas pipeline through the area.

It’s part of a larger $3 billion expansion by an Oklahoma-based pipeline company, Williams Partners.

The line would also traverse several nature preserves in Lancaster County… When word of that got out, a local group quickly formed to fight the project. It’s led by Southern Lancaster County resident Malinda Clatterbuck.

“A lot of people who live in the southern end feel the same way I do," says Clatterbuck. "We live here for a reason. We like the privacy, we like the beauty, we like the peace and serenity and the nature that’s around us.”

Williams spokesman Chris Stockton says although this pipeline expansion project isn’t designed to bring Marcellus gas to Pennsylvanians, it will serve millions of other people—in cities like Baltimore, Washington D.C. and as far south as Alabama.

“Customers that we serve—utility companies all up and down the East Coast—will have access to that Marcellus gas, which is much more economically priced than gas coming from other sources," says Stockton.

The Williams line is just one of many new infrastructure projects in the works, to make use of the state’s abundant natural gas resources.

In neighboring Berks County, a Canadian developer is proposing a billion-dollar plant that would convert natural gas into more expensive gasoline.

Angry residents have been packing public meetings to oppose the idea. Meanwhile Chester County has become a natural nexus for pipelines, with its proximity to major cities along the East Coast.

Last month Pennsylvania’s Joint Legislative Conservation Committee held a public hearing there to discuss ways to expand state oversight of pipelines.

Democratic State Senator Andy Dinniman has introduced a package of bills aimed at improving transparency and protecting environment resources.

“All we’re trying to do is make sure every township, every citizen, has information when it comes to the placing of pipelines,” says Dinniman.

But beyond the concerns of residents seeing development in their backyards, the emerging business from fracking and the oil and gas boom in Southeastern Pennsylvania has also brought new job opportunities.

Outside Philadelphia, the West Chester headquarters of drill-rig manufacturer Schramm is buzzing with sounds of new work.

The company has around since the early 20th century, but recently picked up more work building the big rigs that tower over Marcellus Shale well pads.

David Metzger grew up in Philadelphia and now works here. He designs and tests the equipment for the rigs and says they’ve upgraded the controls to make things easier on the operators.

“We tried to put all the main functions onto joysticks, and that means the operator remembers all the commands through muscle memory," says Metzger. "He doesn’t have to look at a panel, he can keep his eyes on the drill for and that makes rig operation a whole lot safer.”

When the recession hit it 2008, Lancaster-based environmental engineering firm Rettew was faced a downturn in its business, but quickly pivoted toward working for Marcellus Shale companies.

Rettew president Mark Lauriello says in the past five years, the company has opened five new offices and nearly doubled its workforce, thanks to the energy industry.

“It’s enabled us to withstand the recession and grow through the recession," says Lauriello. "It’s provided a lot of opportunities for our employees for different types of work and opportunity for advancement.”

The impact on southeastern Pennsylvania could grow as energy companies continue to develop the gas and expand to international markets.

Federal regulators are in the midst of evaluating plans to develop a liquefied natural gas export terminal along the Chesapeake Bay.

It would be the closest such facility to the Marcellus Shale and could make Pennsylvania a global energy hub meaning more jobs and more tradeoffs.

This story comes from StateImpact, an NPR reporting project examining how state policy affects communities. See more stories on energy and the environment at StateImpact.npr.org.