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Gas Drilling Spurs Jobs In Wildlife, Software

According to some in the midst of Pennsylvania's natural gas drilling boom, the job creation possibilities are more varied than previous suspected.

BINGHAMTON, N.Y. (AP) — Before work begins on a gas well or pipeline in northern Pennsylvania, Merlin Benner or one of his colleagues walks the land looking for timber rattlesnakes, a protected species.

"When we find them, we're required to move them far enough away to get them out of danger and out of sight of the workers," Benner said. "State regulations are in place to protect the snakes, but the clients are more concerned about the safety issue."

Job creation is one of the main arguments in favor of natural gas drilling using the controversial technology of high-volume hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking." Industry opponents, who believe health and environmental risks outweigh economic gains, say job numbers are inflated and the economic impact will be a boom-to-bust one.

But jobs are being created, not only in the gas industry and the hotels and restaurants that cater to its rig workers, but also in numerous companies that are filling industry-related niches.

Benner, whose company is Wildlife Specialists of Wellsboro, Pa., is among business owners who have started or expanded because of the shale gas boom that began about four years ago in Pennsylvania. Drilling is expected to spread into New York if the state Department of Environmental Conservation completes its four-year review and approves it, possibly this summer.

Benner worked for the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources for 15 years as a wildlife biologist before retiring early in 2007 to start his company.

"We went from one person five years ago to about 15 full-time now and 15 to 20 seasonal workers in the summers," he said.

President Obama said in his State of the Union address in January that natural gas drilling could create 600,000 jobs nationally.

Benner's company also delineates wetlands, looks for endangered Indiana bats, and conducts habitat surveys. The firm illustrates the diversity of businesses that are directly involved with natural gas well and pipeline projects in the Marcellus Shale, a deep, gas-rich rock formation underlying southern New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia.

John Payne, owner of Payne's Cranes in Bainbridge, said his company had been busy erecting modular homes until the economy tanked in 2008. "We were doing about 60 homes a year and that dropped to maybe a dozen," Payne said. "The gas development came along at just the right time for us. It's the best opportunity I've had in 42 years, no exaggeration."

Payne's Cranes unloads gas compressors and erects the buildings that house them, as well as erecting, disassembling and transporting drilling rigs. "We've modernized considerably since we started working in Pennsylvania three years ago," Payne said.

Payne has added four employees, increasing his full-time staff to 18, and four cranes, going from eight to 12.

Chris Musser and two friends started Crosshair Consultants of Vestal after they graduated from college in 2009.

"We saw an opportunity and jumped on it," Musser said. "We've gone from four to 10 employees plus two part-time, and we just signed a lease for a larger office space." Crosshair contracts with gas companies to oversee truck fleets, ensuring that vehicles are properly maintained and drivers comply with safety regulations.

Dave Nixon, who opened a Pennsylvania branch of California-based Rain for Rent two years ago, said he has 130 employees and is looking to hire 20 to 30 more. They rent water storage tanks, pipes, and pumps and their employees install, operate and remove the equipment.

The company's work has changed along with stricter regulations for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which frees gas from shale by injecting a well with millions of gallons of water mixed with sand and chemicals to crack surrounding rock.

"Most of the water is being recycled now," Nixon said. "When we started out in 2010, we weren't filtering at all."

Kim Grant, of the Buffalo-based Applied Sciences Group, said the company that programs the wastewater controls used in fracking grew 20 percent last year, adding nine employees, and expects to hire another nine this year.

"There's a significant need for software engineers in the gas industry," Grant said.

While Wildlife Specialists does a lot of work for the gas industry as well as for wind farms and other developers, Barry Butler, a wetland specialist for the company, said he has mixed feelings about drilling.

"Philosophically, I think most of the people in our office would like to see the environment not change," Butler said. "But that's not going to happen, even without the gas industry here. So we want to sit down and figure out how we can best develop the resource our country needs while designing and managing the projects so they have the least environmental impact possible."

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