America at work
From Finance to Fracking: One Man’s Journey
Free Enterprise Staff | May 23, 2014

When he graduated from college, Ryan Renzi figured he would spend his days in an office, probably wearing a suit, managing other people’s money.

He figured wrong.

After realizing his young career in personal finance wasn’t going to fulfill his own financial ambitions, Renzi took the leap and joined a fast-growing industry that promised more upside potential: fracking.

“My career aspirations after college were focused in the world of personal finance,” said Renzi, who now works as a field coordinator at FTS International, an expanding business that provides oil and gas companies with well completion services. “I quickly learned that it would be difficult to maintain the lifestyle I wanted while also taking care of my financial obligations.”

He’s not the only one to find a fresh start in the industry, especially in the area around his hometown of Pittsburgh. When Renzi travels across Pennsylvania to oversee the company’s well sites, he sees signs everywhere of how shale development is spurring economic activity.

“The increasing need for labor has led many to find employment in the oil and gas business, with very competitive pay and benefits,” he said. “The expansion of this industry has also helped local businesses thrive.”

Though the technology has been around for more than 60 years, a decade ago, hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, was not a well-known term in Pennsylvania — or anywhere in the U.S., for that matter. Yet since 2006, the technology, which allows for the extraction of natural gas from underground rock formations, has had a profound impact on both the economy and domestic energy production.

Over the past decade, the discovery of oil and gas deposits in some of the nation’s largest shale formations has led to a precipitous uptick in the use of fracking technologies. This, in turn, has literally fueled U.S. energy production and reduced the need for natural gas imports, which had been projected to climb to more than $100 billion, according to a report from IHS Global Insight.

U.S. natural gas production has surged since 2005, when the U.S. generated roughly 18 billion cubic feet of natural gas, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. In 2012, domestic natural gas production hit 25.3 million cubic feet, with fracking wells along the Marcellus Shale continuing to drive gains. This rapid build-up has helped the U.S. eclipse both Saudi Arabia and Russia to become the world’s top producer of oil and natural gas.

Aside from an improved U.S. energy security outlook and plummeting natural gas prices, the rise of fracking has had real consequences on myriad local communities in Pennsylvania and elsewhere in the U.S.

Renzi has seen firsthand how fracking has created jobs across the state when he makes the three-hour drive from Pittsburgh to Williamsport, a town best known as the birthplace of little league baseball. While the central Pennsylvania town still thrives on the seasonal influx of fans to the World Series every August, its economy is now getting a year-round boost as the epicenter of the state’s hydraulic fracturing industry.

“The oilfield presence in the area has seemed to revitalize the local economy,” he said. “I see small stores, gas stations, restaurants, and hotels popping up and prospering. Of course, there are many, many other communities in the Marcellus Shale region that are experiencing this same upturn.”

Perhaps most importantly, the industry is creating jobs that pay well and offer benefits, he said. “The natural gas and oil boom that our country is experiencing came at a time when many people were having a hard time finding employment and providing for themselves and their families.”

Fracking has helped the Keystone State recover from the most significant economic contraction since the Great Depression. At 6%, its unemployment rate not only has fallen from a March 2010 high of 8.7%, but also is lower than the national average of 6.7%. Thanks in large part to an abundance of energy-related jobs, unemployment stands at or below 5.8% in Bradford, Susquehanna, and Westmoreland counties.

Moreover, the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry estimates that the oil and gas industry supports roughly 232,000 employees in the Marcellus Shale area. Many of these are high-paying jobs, as the average core oil and gas industry wage is nearly $35,000 higher than the Pennsylvania average. The average ancillary wage for such positions is $16,500 higher than the state average, as well.

While fracking is becoming increasingly prevalent across the rural Pennsylvania landscape, technological advancements are continuing to minimize its impact as efficiency improves and pad sizes shrink. Companies are also doing a better job of educating local residents about fracking and showing how it directly benefits surrounding communities, says Renzi.

“I have had the pleasure of working with a group of people who are hardworking and open to share the knowledge that they have acquired through the years,” he said. “We need to continue to have open and honest discussions about the work our industry performs so that people can better understand how committed the industry is to operating safely and working to protect the environment.”