WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. (AP) — The Marcellus Shale industry, which arrived in this northern Pennsylvania city five years ago and turned Williamsport into the seventh-fastest-growing area in the nation, appears to have lost some momentum.
Economic activity in this city affectionately known as "Billtown" has subsided noticeably in the last year as the pace of drilling natural gas wells slowed in response to low gas prices.
Statewide, exploration companies drilled 30 percent fewer wells in 2012 and are on course to drill even fewer this year. About half as many drilling rigs are operating in Pennsylvania now as in early 2012, when the rigs began moving to more lucrative oil-producing regions.
In Lycoming County, motels and restaurants are not so crowded these days - hotel-tax revenue was off last year by 13 percent after doubling the previous three years. Fewer out-of-state pickup trucks swarm the fuel pumps at the Sheetz stations.
But local civic and business leaders insist the shale-gas industry has not gone bust. They say that it has merely taken a breather, and that all signs point to a long-term boost for this region.
"We've said all along there's going to be ebbs and flows to this," said Williamsport Mayor Gabriel J. Campana, an unabashed gas-industry booster. "There's a real optimism here."
"I think the hype is what changed," said Davie Jane Gilmour, president of the Pennsylvania College of Technology. The school has trained 3,400 students as welders, rig hands, commercial truck drivers, and office workers to serve the industry. She said demand for trained workers was still growing.
Indeed, in the Marcellus Energy Park in nearby Muncy, at the intersection of Marcellus and Energy Drives, bulldozers recently prepared the foundation for an expansion of the field office of FMC Technologies Inc., one of many national oil-field service companies that have located operations here to support drilling across Pennsylvania's northern tier.
"The slowdown's over," said Daniel A. Klingerman, the developer whose 350-acre industrial park includes several service companies that maintain fleets of the huge engines and pumps used in the hydraulic fracturing process. "We're twice as busy now as we were a year ago."
Klingerman's company, the Liberty Group, is a construction juggernaut. It is building a new motel along I-180, a $35 million expansion of the regional medical center, and a new $10 million YMCA center.
Klingerman also plans a civic arena downtown and a 160-foot-tall office building overlooking the West Branch Susquehanna River. All he needs is an energy company as anchor tenant.
Companies such as Anadarko Petroleum Corp., which has about 100 employees in a 30,000-square-foot downtown office, and Halliburton Co., which employs 500 people at its Williamsport field office, say most of their workforces now are local hires. Both companies say they have not shed staff during the downturn.
The new companies have become integrated into the community, contributing money and time to nonprofits. "At this point, everybody's fitting in, like all our other legacy industries," said Lycoming County Commissioner Jeff Wheeland.
Not everyone is a believer. The pullback has reignited a debate about whether the Marcellus development is all it's cracked up to be. Critics point to the rapid decline of production from individual gas wells as evidence that the resource is finite.
"We were promised a 40-year industry," said Ralph Kisberg, a founder of the Responsible Drilling Alliance, a Williamsport activist group. "It's going to become a 10-year industry because of the decline of the wells."
The Keystone Research Center and Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center released a report last week that contends the Marcellus development has had little economic impact outside the drilling region.
The report also said the slowdown "raises questions about the stability and permanence of even the small number of jobs that have been created."
Despite the slowdown in drilling, production across the Marcellus continues to grow impressively as a backlog of previously drilled wells comes on line. At current production levels of 13 billion cubic feet per day, the Marcellus produces enough natural gas in 70 days to supply Pennsylvania's annual demand. Two years ago, Pennsylvania needed to import gas from the Gulf Coast to meet its needs.
Shale's economic impact is likely to be debated fiercely in next year's election. Gov. Corbett says the Marcellus development now supports more than 200,000 jobs in Pennsylvania, and can fuel new energy-intensive manufacturing and chemical production for generations to come.
"The opponents of drilling have really become what I would call economic-change deniers," Corbett said Nov. 14 at an industry conference in Pittsburgh.