Western Pennsylvania workers make inroads in landing shale gas jobs

| Wednesday, March 13, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Western Pennsylvania building contractors and tradespeople say they're gradually making inroads into the shale gas business — meaning fewer Texas and Oklahoma contractors' license plates are spotted on area roads these days.

About 1,600 of the 30,000 laborers, pipefitters, electricians and operators in the Pittsburgh Regional Building and Construction Trades Council's territory work for Marcellus or Utica shale natural gas producers, midstream businesses that build and run pipelines or other industry players, said Rich Stanizzo, the council's business manager and chairman of the Builders Guild of Western Pennsylvania.

“We weren't getting any of this work when they first came into town” about four years ago, Stanizzo said on Tuesday as the guild and the Marcellus Shale Coalition hosted a forum in the South Side for about 100 contractors and workers on how to land opportunities in shale development.

Pennsylvania produces about 10 percent of the nation's gas supply, said Dave Spigelmyer, chairman of the shale coalition. About 1,300 wells will be drilled statewide this year, he added.

The industry has created about 234,000 jobs in Pennsylvania, state figures show, and the coalition estimates 93 percent of recent hires are from the state or nearby states in the Appalachian Basin.

Unions “are doing better on the west side (of the state) than the east side,” Stanizzo said, with pipeline companies such as MarkWest Energy Partners LP employing union workers.

Some cite room for improvement.

“We're getting 5 or 10 percent of the work? Why shouldn't we be doing 40 or 50?” said Ken Broadbent, business manager for Steamfitters Local 449, referring to mechanical contractors in the region.

The issue may not indicate an aversion to using union labor, he said, but that companies from the South are more comfortable with contractors they know. “It doesn't make sense to bring workers from Texas and Oklahoma up here to live in hotels and trailer parks, when you've got laid-off building trades workers” here, he said.

McCarl's Inc., an industrial contractor in Beaver Falls, tried for more than six months to win jobs and has about 1,300 employees working on compressor stations and processing plants for customers such as National Fuel Gas and MarkWest.

“We're getting more opportunities,” said Daniel Rains, general manager for business development, adding that while drilling has slowed, construction of infrastructure needed to transport and process gas remains strong.

The gas industry has a long history in the region, but “It's still new to many people in Pittsburgh,” Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald told the contractors, adding that work must strictly follow safety rules. “All it takes is one problem” to sway opinions.

The county recently signed a $500 million deal with Consol Energy Inc. to produce gas on part of Pittsburgh International Airport's property. Fitzgerald said the deal is a “no brainer” in terms of benefits to taxpayers, but it generated controversy.

Consol, which will start drilling work at the airport in the second quarter of 2014, employs more than 1,200 contractors, said contract manager Ryan Litwinovich. That's double the number from 2008, when the Cecil-based energy company drilled its first Marcellus well.

Kim Leonard is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-5606 or kleonard@tribweb.com.

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