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The natural gas industry is rapidly expanding in a place that holds a significant place in the history of hydrocarbons. Pennsylvania is dotted with coal mines and it was once a leading source of oil. Now energy companies are returning to the state. Scott Detrow reports from member station WITF.
SCOTT DETROW: Williamsport's hotels are doing well these days. The Holiday Inn Express has seen a 30 percent guest increase over the past year, and the vast majority of those customers are natural gas drillers who are in town to work on the hundreds of new wells in the surrounding area.
The same thing is happening across much of rural Pennsylvania, as drillers rush to tap into trillions of cubic feet of natural gas that until recently hadn't been obtainable.
Four in 10 rooms in the hotel are filled by drillers right now, and vice president Jennifer Locey says that's created a squeeze.
JENNIFER LOCEY: Most corporate weeks, Monday through Thursday, if you don't book at least a few days in advance, you will not get a room.
DETROW: The benefits are trickling down to the restaurant industry too. A handful of Tex-Mex and BBQ joints have popped up in Williamsport, to accommodate the sudden influx of Western drillers who are eating out since they can't cook dinner in hotel and motel rooms.
G: Acme Barbeque, which opened up in April. Co-owner George Logue estimates between 30 and 50 percent of his business comes from drillers. Logue is happy to have them, but he concedes he feels some pressure from the Texans, who are always ready to weigh in on his brisket and pulled pork.
GEORGE LOGUE: These guys really know what I'm talking about, with the smoke and the slow-cooking and the different sauces and the rubs and the different woods you use.
DETROW: Energy Companies have pledged to employ local workers at the drilling sites, but so far they're having trouble finding workers with the needed expertise.
Political and business leaders are working hard to speed up training for locals who want to work on the rigs. Williamsport's Pennsylvania College of Technology has shifted its curriculum to focus on drilling-related skills, and vice president Bill Martin says it's becoming as hard to find a seat in heavy machinery classes as it is to book a room at the Holiday Inn.
BILL MARTIN: A seat in that particular program would be available to you sometime in the fall of 2011 if you get your application in in the next month or two. After that, it will be fall of 2012.
DETROW: People in Williamsport say the tide is starting to turn. Drilling companies are holding more and more local job fairs, and some of the Texas transplants are looking for permanent housing in the area.
The financial benefits may be coming at an environmental cost though. Residents in the northeastern Pennsylvania community of Dimock have been dealing with contaminated drinking water ever since drilling started there. One woman's water well blew up last year.
Brady Russell is the eastern Pennsylvania director for environmental group Clean Water Action.
BRADY RUSSELL: As one water well builder in the area pointed out, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that when a bunch of folks have methane problems at the same time, and that time happens to be right after drilling began in the area, it was probably related to natural gas drilling.
DETROW: Environmental advocates warn of contaminated streams and polluted air. Pennsylvania's northern neighbor, New York, has effectively imposed a moratorium on Marcellus Shale drilling, as officials weigh its environmental consequences.
But most of the business owners in Williamsport who stand to benefit from the boom are downplaying the risk. The city's mayor is even trying to re-brand the city as Pennsylvania's new energy capital.
For NPR News, I'm Scott Detrow.
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