Emerging market draws workers

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With a degree in petroleum engineering and an internship at energy giant BP under her belt, Tracy Giles could have found a job just about anyplace in the world where drills and wells cast their long shadows on the horizon: Middle East. Canada. Texas. Mountain West. Asia.

But she chose southwestern Pennsylvania, to be a part of the Marcellus Shale play. The young Texan moved to Washington County last summer, even though she graduated from Texas Tech in spring 2008 and could have easily stayed put.

"That was before the economy crashed," she said. "Oil was $100 a barrel. It was a great time to be graduating. There were plenty of jobs in Texas."

Yet here she is, living near Canonsburg, working for Range Resources' regional office, active in her local church, hitting some Pittsburgh night spots for swing and salsa dancing. She's part of a small, but detectable, group of workers -- engineers, technicians, laborers and office managers -- who have been moving to Pennsylvania from their home bases in Texas and the West, and even Europe and Canada, over the last 24 months.

They've come to set up, or work for, branch offices opened by the new players in Pennsylvania's emerging Marcellus Shale market.

Natural gas prices are too low right now for any kind of major well production or related job surge, but companies of all varieties -- drilling, water transfer, gas transport, land leasing, processing and so on -- are establishing outposts here, anticipating the day that prices rise and the Marcellus play lives up to its promise.

The jobs created here are filled by a mix of locals and transplants -- an executive with Downtown-based EQT Corp. said many of the field crews were imported from other places, while Texas-based Range Resources estimated that four of every five workers in its regional work force come from southwestern Pennsylvania.

And then, there are people who fall into both categories, the so-called transplants coming here from out of state who actually know the area pretty well. That's partly because Penn State University has one of the oldest petroleum and natural gas engineering programs in the country, and many students who passed through it over the decades are former Pennsylvanians now finding an opportunity to come home.

Matt Curry, originally of Lower Burrell, is one. His Penn State chemical engineering degree, conferred in 1994, took him from State College to Kentucky (Schlumberger Limited) to the Dallas-Ft. Worth metroplex (two different energy companies), and then, finally, to Peters.

"I thought I'd never be back ... I thought it was all dried up," he said of energy job opportunities in Pennsylvania. When he moved to the Dallas area, he was working on the Barnett Shale field, "The mother of all shale plays in Texas," he said.

But Range came calling, offering a chance to move home. His return -- in summer 2008, with his Texas-born wife -- means he is finally able to use the Steelers season tickets that he's owned for five years. (He'd been giving the tickets to relatives during the intervening period. His family, he jokes, is "still in mourning" because of his return to the area.)

For every "boomerang" -- the folks originally from here who moved away, then came back -- there are two more who took a chance on the Pittsburgh area, sight-unseen, such as Mike and Leagha Courtney.

Mr. Courtney works for Red Oak Water Transfer, another Texas-based company with a small division in Washington County. (To extract gas, water is carried from its source to the wells, where it's used in the fracking process.) He started out laying pipe and soon became safety coordinator.

He, his wife and their three children made the move to Mt. Lebanon in 2007. Mrs. Courtney is employed in the industry as an engineering analyst, calculating the amount of natural gas stored in a certain field, and how much it's worth.

Texas oil and gas runs in his family's blood. But, "We said, 'Let's go where the best opportunity for our family,'" Mr. Courtney said. "Even if she lost her job right now, we wouldn't go back to Texas."

Mrs. Courtney agreed, and despite the dearth of decent Tex-Mex places in Allegheny and Washington counties, "We really fell in love with it right away. It was an adjustment, for first-timers ... [but] everybody made the transition very well." This is the first time any of them has lived outside of Texas.

Darwin Trahern, on the other hand, has been outside of Texas plenty. He and his wife are native Oklahomans, and he spent the early part of his career in Kansas. Now, he's a sales manager with Weatherford International Ltd., a services company that supplies the oil and gas operators.

He and his wife moved into their home near Eighty-Four, the day before Thanksgiving 2008. Colleagues are now contemplating the same move.

"We're seeing Texas license plates down here," he said. "And plates from other states, also back West. ... Even though Appalachia has always been a part of our industry, [we] didn't really have a recognition that there was anything left in Appalachia, in Pennsylvania."

But now?

"The word is out that there's opportunity here. I get regular calls from people from outside of the company that I know. Their companies are starting to look at the area, too."

Bill Toland can be reached at btoland@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2625.


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