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Guest Column

March 19, 2011

Anti-drilling 'information' misleading

I was at the Feb. 24 presentation by Dr. Janette Barth and Nicole Dillingham at the United Church of Christ in Norwich and feel the need to correct some of the misinformation that was given out at that time.

Unlike Dr. Barth and Ms. Dillingham, I base my positions not on reading some else's studies (and ignoring those that do not agree with my pre-formed opinions), but on actual boots-on-the-ground research done by me both here in Chenango County and in Pennsylvania.

First, the idea that gas-drilling companies do not hire local people to work for them is absolutely ludicrous. Is there some advantage to hiring workers from outside the area and paying them a per diem for lodging and food? The only reasons a company would employ a transient worker is if the skills to do the job are not available locally, the worker is part of a crew that comes with a piece of equipment not available locally, or the jobs are short-term in nature. In fact, these companies expend time and money recruiting and training a local work force.

Dr. Barth did not seem to have any idea as to how many full-time jobs are created by the industry that require local employees, so I would like to clarify that for her. Economic studies I have read -- and I have read a few -- indicate that for every six wells in production, we should see one full-time job created ranging from clerical and maintenance (well tenders, etc.) to technical positions requiring high levels of training (safety directors, production engineers, etc.).

Of course, being the skeptic I am, I wanted to confirm this figure. I started by looking at the local production company's employment and where the employees came from. That was actually a pretty easy piece of research. Norse has an office in Norwich and I know many of their employees (in fact I know some of the employees' parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles). The Norwich facility oversees approximately 100 wells in the region and employees 15 people, 10 whom have been residents of Chenango County for years. As for the others, who were not originally from here, should we really have an issue with educated working people taking up residence in our communities?

I also visited Dimock, Pa., and stopped at the Cabot offices on Route 29. There I found that the same thing held true. The people managing the office and the local activities of the company were full-time residents of the area.

Ms. Barth also made the preposterous supposition that "The only parties likely to benefit are the gas companies and a few lucky landowners." Ms. Barth, help me out here: just prior to making that statement, didn't you state that full-blown drilling might bring a dozen well heads on each square mile of land in New York (a highly unlikely scenario, I must add)? What are there, a few mega landowners in Chenango County who control the approximately 600 square miles of private land here and a bunch of landless squatters? Again, that model does not in any way mirror my observations, nor would it be supported by even a cursory review of Chenango County's tax maps. There are literally hundreds of parcels of land here that are large enough to offer a landowner a significant lease payment and royalty check.

Another group of local people who benefit from gas-drilling activities are the owners of local businesses who do work for the industry and their employees. There are a number of economic studies that quantify the number of jobs that the support industry creates, but I have found those numbers to be widely variable, probably based on how well the support industry is developed in the area. The longer the activity of natural gas development has been occurring in the area, the more robust the support industry is and the greater the number of jobs it creates, I suspect.

However, being the boots-on-the-ground person I am, I did make a tour of Chenango County last year in an effort to identify local companies, by category, that were able to offer goods or services to the industry for inclusion in a directory that has been produced by Commerce Chenango. I found that there were literally dozens of companies working for the industry already, in fields such as fabrication, printing, water testing, logging, automotive repair work, precast concrete, excavating, rigging and surveying. On the retail side, our restaurants and hotels are doing well, as are establishments selling automotive parts, clothing, lawn and garden equipment, tools and welding supplies. (Please contact Commerce Chenango to discuss the inclusion of your business in the next edition of the directory).

I also went to Pennsylvania to see if the same thing held true there. On the drive down Route 29 from Montrose to Wyalusing, I counted 17 businesses that were focused on supplying materials and services to the natural-gas industry.

There are also companies that have located here to support the industry. One of the more interesting ones is Greenworld Geophysical. The company gathers seismic data used by the natural-gas drillers to select the areas where natural gas is most likely to be found. They opened an office in Norwich last year and at one point employed over 50 people. Their activities, like those of many construction companies, did come to an end in our region late last year due to weather conditions, but they will be back in the area this spring employing local people.

I could go on and on, but I will leave your readers with this:

During the question-and-answer period I asked Dr. Barth and Ms. Dillingham to take a tour of Chenango County with me to meet some of the people whose lives are being positively affected by the industry being here. I gave them my business card and asked them to call.

They agreed to do so, in front of the 85 or so people in attendance in God's house.

I just wonder if there is any chance either one of them will call me before he does?

Steven Palmatier is president of Walking Ridge Development, which provides consulting on the issues and opportunities presented by the presence of the natural gas industry in communities.

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