Natives find way home by shale drilling

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They call them "gumbanders" -- Pennsylvanians who went away for a decade or two but have been pulled back.

What's tugging many of them is about two miles underground. The debate on the environmental impact of Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling is far from over, but the economic impact is already undeniable.

One need only drive through the booming Southpointe office park in Washington County, where Range Resources, the pioneer of this Appalachian gas boom, keeps outgrowing its space. Out in the rolling hills beyond, there's so much drilling activity that some workers could conceivably work a lifetime in the field and never have to leave Washington County.

Range has 300 horizontal Marcellus wells in Pennsylvania, most of them in this region, and "we're really just getting started," spokesman Matt Pitzarella said.

Matt Curry, 40, is a Lower Burrell native who a few years ago was living in Dallas, which makes autumns tough on a guy with Steelers season tickets. Then Mr. Curry read an investor report on Range's play in the Marcellus Shale and shot a congratulatory email to Range senior vice president Ray Walker Jr.

Mr. Walker replied with something like "Hey, thank you, would you like a job?" That day, when Mr. Curry took his wife, Heather, to lunch to celebrate her 34th birthday, she read the email and said, "I guess we're moving to Pittsburgh."

Mr. Curry, a Penn State graduate with a degree in chemical engineering, became the director of engineering and development for Range's Marcellus Shale Division in 2008. There are about 400 Range employees in southwestern Pennsylvania now, up from one when Mr. Walker opened the Washington County office in 2007. Mr. Curry said he was "employee No. 66 or thereabouts -- we'll just go with the Lemieux number."

Tony Gaudlip, 41, is another Penn State engineering graduate with a similar tale. He had lived all over the world with his wife and three children, most recently in Jakarta, Indonesia. Back there, his family had a gardener, two drivers and two maids because "that's what you did in Jakarta."

Mr. Gaudlip worried about what such luxury was doing to his children. On the one hand, they were getting an international education and befriending children from all over the world, which was great. On the other hand, they weren't learning a work ethic, and he didn't like the way other expatriates who grew up with that lifestyle treated those who served them.

When he brought the family home for a long visit with his parents in Huntingdon County in 2007, he got to talking with an old friend at a Pirates game. The man worked for Chesapeake Energy Corp. and told Mr. Gaudlip about the future of shale drilling, which went against most of what everyone knew about the oil-and-gas business to that point. Shale had never been a target; "pesky shale gas" was what you drilled through to get to sandstone.

Mr. Gaudlip never figured what may yet prove to be the largest natural gas reservoir in the world was in his old backyard. He sent out resumes in 2007 and now he's Range's development team manager for southwestern Pennsylvania and a partial Pirates season-ticket holder.

The Currys and the Gaudlips live in Peters. Mrs. Curry has given birth to two boys, Asher and Quinn, at Magee-Womens Hospital in the past three years. Her husband says they like the way yards aren't all fenced in, so their boys can play hide-and-seek the way he did as a kid. Try that in Dallas, he said, and "you'd get shot."

The only downside Mr. Gaudlip has seen is some of the native pushback against "Texpats" moving to Western Pennsylvania. He has lived all over the world, including Saudi Arabia just a couple of months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and has never been anything but welcomed.

Well, if the Marcellus Shale boom took industry insiders by surprise, it's even harder for outsiders to take it all in. How is this stuff deposited 400 million years ago transforming 21st-century Pennsylvania? What kind of ride will it take us on?

Or, to put that another way, as Mr. Gaudlip did: "Do you decide your destiny or was it already decided for us?"

A philosophical bent inspired by his years in Asia? No, Mr. Gaudlip said that's pretty much straight out of "Forrest Gump."


Brian O'Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.


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