- The Washington Times - Monday, May 23, 2011

Second of two parts

SLOVAN, Pa. — Paul Battista opened his industrial supply store in this small town southwest of Pittsburgh 31 years ago in the hopes of doing big business with the infant solar-power industry. He called his store Sunnyside Supply as a nod to what he viewed at the time as the future of American energy.

Times have changed — and so has his customer base.

Sunnyside’s recent profits are through the roof, up more than 200 percent in the past three years. Mr. Battista’s workforce has tripled since 2008, from five to 15 employees. Solar power wasn’t the economic savior, however. Instead, the booming Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling industry gave the small-town businessman the means to build a bigger, better store and invest in new trucks to transport goods to gas companies drilling across western Pennsylvania.

“We’re modeling our business to what they need,” Mr. Battista said of his approach, which often involves nighttime trips across the state to fetch rare parts.

"We're modeling our business to what they need." - Paul Battista, owner of Sunnyside Supply, an industrial supply store in Slovan, Pa. (Andrew S. Geraci/The Washington Times)
“We’re modeling our business to what they need.” - Paul Battista, owner ... more >

Sunnyside Supply’s success is just one side effect of the gas industry’s mad rush for Pennsylvania, one of the richest parts of the Marcellus Shale, a mammoth chunk of marine sedimentary rock stretching from New York as far south as Kentucky. Analysts say “the Shale” holds as much as 516 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, enough to supply America’s demand for a century or more.

A method called hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” is the key to harvesting the bountiful supply thousands of feet below ground. Millions of gallons of water are mixed with sand and chemicals and pumped into the ground, cracking open the rock and liberating the gas so it can be pumped to waiting pipelines.

The cutting-edge technology is revolutionizing the energy industry, changing the economic landscape across the state and giving new life to communities that were struggling to make ends meet.

Environmental critics have raised a number of concerns, including the risk of contaminating local water supplies and the impact on vulnerable small communities from billion-dollar outsider corporate interests focused first and foremost on making a quick buck. Other critics say the gas companies should face higher taxes to help the state’s dire financial situation.

Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr., Pennsylvania Democrat, has rejected the idea that drilling for natural gas and protecting the local environment are mutually exclusive, but he told a Capitol Hill hearing last week that there was reason to be cautious.

“I support responsible gas exploration, yet I strongly feel that we must protect against repercussions that not only harm the environment and put people at risk, but also hurt business and affect the economy. Damaging incidents can spark strong backlashes and end up stalling economic development.”

Early payoff

Still, the early payoff from the energy boom is readily apparent in these parts.

Newly paved roads are common in Washington and surrounding areas. Multibillion-dollar gas companies need sturdy pathways to move their rigs and other equipment. The decaying, pothole-riddled streets or dusty, unpaved routes of years past won’t cut it.

“Us as a township, we could never afford to even think of building a road like that,” said Mr. Battista, tools and equipment hanging on racks behind him and employees busily jotting down the day’s order.

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