Since I have been writing about the evolution and business of natural gas extraction in the Endless Mountains for nearly three years now, friends and relatives outside the area often ask me how our lives have changed as a result of an influx of new people, technologies, and ways of thinking about natural resources.
In a column that I wrote in the Spring of 2011, about two years into the natural gas boom, I mused about a potential cultural shift, the likes of which hadn’t been realized in the region since General Sullivan and his army slaughtered and/or drove out most of the Native Americans.
My friend Mark, an NEPA transplant to West Hollywood, suggested recently that I bring that notion full circle. In response, I replied casually that I did not think that there had really been much of a cultural shift. Since then, however, I have developed a new perspective.
A cultural shift – to me – suggests changes among the general population as a result of an influx of different types of people. These might include new ways of talking, recreating, dressing, and eating. No doubt, hubs of immigration like the Wyoming Valley (from the late 1800s to early 1900s) constantly evolved as Poles, Czechs, Italians, Jews, Greeks and other Europeans arrived in droves.
Yes, the gas workers came in great numbers at first, and they did stand out as being different from the general populace, but not in ways that most locals would immediately give them credit. Many in the area resented the overcrowding and the notion that they were here to take jobs away from us.
In reality, the men (and some women) were skilled laborers who had the training necessary to do tasks for which very few people here were qualified. The majority of the gas workers were well-mannered, and – because they earned more money that most of – generous. Stuck in one town for as long as six months at a time, they spent loads of money and assisted a historically-depressed economy.
Crime did increase in the midst of the gas boom, but only those most closely associated with law enforcement knew that the majority of the arrests of Texans, Oklahomans, and boys from Louisiana were DUIs. The contributing factors were boredom coupled with disposable income and an unfortunate disregard for Pennsylvania’s strict drunk driving laws. Those who found themselves in prison were there simply because they refused to allow for a blood draw, abstinence from which was customary in their home states.
Simultaneously, we have endured the bath salts epidemic, which had nothing to do with the gas workers, who are serious drinkers at best. After synthetic pot, coke and crack was made illegal in PA, ne’er-do-wells from New York’s Southern Tier rushed over the border to feed the insatiable appetites of users of hard drugs, and they are still here.
There was also a minority sentiment that the gas workers were here to steal our women. This notion infuriated my friend Jim, who assured anyone who said anything of the sort to him that workers were attracting women who were sick and tired of waiting for their boyfriends to get off their asses and get real jobs.
These gas guys have a work ethic that makes most of us here in the Endless Mountains look like lazy slobs. They don’t even blink at working 12-hour days for 20 days in a row. Most of the guys I know around here would be crying in their beer to endure such harsh treatment. Oh, woe is them. Jim works hard, makes a good buck and treats women the way they want and deserve to be treated. Hence, he knoweth from whence he speaketh.
The first few waves of the gas boom are nearly ended. The leases have been signed, the well pads have been built, the gathering and pipelines have been constructed, and the gas is flowing. There will always be some measure of similar activity as each of the dozen or so gas companies strive to maintain active leases. And the gas workers are likely to return in larger numbers when the technologies of drilling and extraction evolve to the point that the Utica shale, which sits about 3,000 feet below the Marcellus shale can be tapped in a cost effective manner.
So, in the wake of the boom, how have our lives really been altered?
Most importantly, after decades of stagnation, we have become accustomed to change. We have seen and learned enough to realize that tomorrow is likely to be different than today.
I do believe that the overall work ethic has improved. It would not surprise me to see guys with average educations leave the area to find work, many of them simply by following the gas companies wherever they go next. Previously, “getting out of Dodge” was the providence of highly educated young people who couldn’t imagine being stuck in an economically and culturally recessed environment forever.
Thankfully, the “brain drain” seems to have come to an end. Not only have many people returned to the area with degrees and worldly experiences to share, more young people are choosing to earn degrees at local colleges and apply their knowledge at companies that are growing because of the abundance of natural gas underneath us.
We are a prouder people. Natural gas put the Endless Mountains in the spotlight in ways that most of us had never experienced nor could we have imagined. Our new-found significance on a national and international scale helped us to better identify with our previous history and heritage that had been all but forsaken or taken for granted. It feels good to know that we matter.
I also see more openness to different types of people, not just ethnically but also as a reflection of how open and friendly the gas workers were to us. And our local hard-working rednecks were quick to pick up on those southern accents as a virtual right of passage.
Our continuing evolution as a region and a community will depend greatly on how open to change we remain. New York State will eventually lift its moratorium on hydraulic fracturing and residents there will experience their own version of the boom. New Yorkers are different than Pennsylvanians – even those just over the border. It will be interesting to see how they handle the changes that accompany progress.