TOWANDA, Pa. — In the hills of northwest Pennsylvania, the boom in natural gas production turned mechanic Chris Sutton into a millionaire practically overnight.
Sutton recently leased his 154 acres of land on the Marcellus Shale to Talisman Energy for a $900,000 up front check, plus a 20% cut of the revenue of the natural gas extracted from his land.
A half hour away it's a very different story. Truman Burnett's retirement home is ruined: His pond is contaminated by a drilling accident on land owned by a neighbor and his well water is undrinkable.
Burnett doesn't blame the neighbor for the mishap, but the fortunes of Burnett and Sutton illustrate just how dramatically the shale gas phenomenon is dividing Pennsylvania.
Some are getting very rich, while others see nothing but problems.
Nearly everyone appreciates the economic benefits derived from the development of the cleaner, domestic energy source in the Marcellus, which stretches under Pennsylvania, West Virginia, New York and Ohio.
But as shale gas production takes off in the Northeast and in other shale formations across the country, people should pay attention to Pennsylvania.
Here, debate about the speed of development, the influx of out-of-state workers, the safety of the drinking water, and the changing character of the area is dividing this state's rural communities.
**A Boom in Bloom**
Towanda, a town of some 3,000 people about 60 miles northwest of Scranton, is in the midst of a full-on energy boom.
Hotel rooms are impossible to get — one hotel was booked through December. Rents on two-bedroom apartments have gone from $400 to $1,500 a month. The downtown is jammed with traffic, much of it tractor trailers loaded down with drilling materials and equipment. One resident counted over 100 passing his house in an hour.
"We're being invaded," Jim Stuart, a longtime Towanda resident, said from the counter of a downtown diner. "And I don't deal well with things being shoved down my throat."
The invaders, mostly workers from Texas and Oklahoma, are here for the vast deposits of natural gas.
It's been long known that gas exists in this part of Pennsylvania, but extracting it was too costly. But a few years ago, shale gas became economical. The reason: Higher gas prices and advances in drilling and hydraulic fracturing.
Known as fracking, hydraulic fracturing is a process that involves breaking the shale with vast amounts of pressurized water, sand and chemicals. It's being described as one of the biggest developments in energy in a long time.
It was pioneered in Texas, then Louisiana and Arkansas. Now it's in Pennsylvania.
"It's been the opportunity of a lifetime," said Jodi Edger, who runs a construction and excavating company that builds the well pads and services the rigs. "If it wasn't for the oil and gas industry, there wouldn't be a whole lot up here."
Edger has doubled the size of his staff in the last year or so, going from 50 employees to over 100.
Laborers get $14 an hour, and backhoe and bulldozer operators earn $18 or more. Everyone has full benefits and gets overtime, which adds up fast. He says his people are putting in 60 and 80 hour weeks.
"You hear the doom and gloom about what's happening with the economy on the national news, and then you see what's happening up here," he said. "I can't even find a truck driver."
On the other side of town, Joe Snell sells welding gas and equipment to contractors working the rigs.
Snell said his sales exploded from about $10,000 a month last fall to over $50,000 a month now.
Lunching with three of his customers at a local diner, it was all jokes.
"Working up here, we found out the difference between northerners and southerners," said one of the welders. "Down there we're rednecks, up here they're hillbillies." Everyone laughed.
For Brianna Morales, proprietor of the BriMarie Inn a half hour north of Towanda in the town of Sayre, the influx of workers has meant more business and the opportunity to meet new people.
"It's neat to learn some of the south's traditions, and the food they like," she said.
But the mood isn't always so light.
A few months back, there was a 15-person brawl outside a Towanda bar, supposedly over a girl. Such incidents are getting more common, said Mike Holt, owner of the Red Rose diner, who witnessed the rumble.
"These guys come up here, with their southern accents, all 'yes m'am, no m'am,' flashing lots of money, and the women are impressed," said Holt. "The local men feel intimidated."
At a bar in Sayre, one roughneck from Louisiana was seen carrying on with the local women, drinking, and pulling out a wad of bills.
After he left, one patron was overheard talking about the greed in town, and the damage this drilling may be causing the environment.
The traffic may be the most visible and most complained about thing in this region. But it's likely temporary — after the wells are drilled it'll be gone.
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