Managing Editor of EndlessMtnLifestyles.com
PA 12th District Congressman Fred Keller sang the praises of natural gas development as he visited Lackawanna College’s School of Petroleum & Natural Gas.
When Fred Keller successfully defeated his Democratic rival in a special election in May to replace the resigning Tom Marino as the representative of Pennsylvania’s 12th District, he essentially inherited one of the most gas-rich regions in the state, if not the nation. On Monday, Fred Keller toured facilities in Susquehanna County, inarguably the most prolific gas producer in the Commonwealth.
“It’s hard to find another congressional district that produces this much energy,” said George Stark, external affairs director at Cabot Oil & Gas Corp., which coordinated Keller’s latest sweep of the Northern Tier. By taking Keller from a drilling site and producing gas pad to the Lackawanna College School of Petroleum & Natural Gas (LC School of PNG), Stark related, the congressman was able to see the curriculum at the school modified to match the available jobs “and the notion that graduating students will gain education and employment in the area – as seamlessly as possible.”
In the course of visiting active gas sites, a school dedicated to producing employees to meet the immediate and long-term needs of the industry, and a business that blossomed as a result of the economic prosperity gas has brought to the county, Rep. Keller got a better sense of how the industry reshapes the land and codifies its people.
As his tour wound down, Fred Keller made references to the collaborations he saw along the way that are designed to ensure that those in Susquehanna County continue to reap the benefits, weather the downturns, and keep a tight grip on their good fortune. Keller also resolved to fight Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposed gas severance tax and efforts to do away with fossil fuels.
“When you look at the partnership between the natural gas business here and what they are doing to help develop and train the workforce it’s really a great opportunity for an affordable education to help people earn family-sustaining wages,” Keller remarked. In reference to the tuition at the LC School of PNG of just $15,000 per year, he noted that it might be the most affordable education available.
As LC School of PNG tech degree manager and instructor Sue Gumble showed Keller around classrooms that will soon be full again with students seeking employment in the gas fields, Keller said that he was impressed to learn how quickly the program can lead students directly into the workforce.
Gumble related that more than a few students have been able to erase their student debt in the course of their internships. In large part, she added, that is made possible by the support of local companies like Cabot, Southwestern Energy, and DTE Energy, which make material donations to the school to keep down costs and provide the bulk of the internships and employment.
Nonetheless, Gumble explained, “We do not have enough students to fill the positions. That’s how many jobs there are.”
To help meet those needs, the curriculum at the School of PNG has evolved as well, providing more certifications along the way in specialized fields such as compression and corrosion.
“Those are the 50-year jobs,” Stark commented, in reference to the long-term needs for such specialists. “And they can start at $50,000 per year.”
Brian Costanza, LC’s vice president for college advancement, noted that enhanced dual enrollment programs are bringing students out of high school with 12 to 18 credits under their belts. Lackawanna College is also putting more of the basic courses on line – another way to give incoming students a head start. Through the Earned Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program, which Keller supports, businesses can help offset the cost for 11th and 12th graders to take college-level courses in high school.
LC School of PNG administrators expect to have about 50 students enrolled simultaneously in the two-year program, and they have room for more. The facility can accommodate up to 70 students “comfortably,” said Costanza. That ensures plenty of space for lab groups of eight students each to get their hands on equipment and training materials.
“You want them to see what they will be using out in the field,” Gumble explained. The school collaborates continuously with the energy companies to ensure that their technologies correspond to the rapidly involving techniques for extraction and transportation of natural gas. Internships are another advantage of that partnership.
The internships are a two-way street, Stark explained. “We tell the students, ‘we’re giving you a chance to kick our tires while we’re testing yours,’” he related, adding that between 80 and 90 percent of the students move directly into employment with the company that gave them the internships.
Fred Keller’s impression of the manner in which such companies and the school have grown together confirmed his notion that the state should continue to support initiatives that help local entities and municipalities help themselves. He believes strongly in keeping the impact fees flowing back to the communities that are being impacted.
“Let these people who own these businesses use the money as they see fit,” Keller stated. Any efforts by government to hinder the production of fossil fuels, he added, would cause unnecessary hardships on the region.
“The elimination of fossil fuels spells more pain than just massive tax increases for working families,” Keller insists. “It means weakening our national security by eliminating our ability to be energy independent, killing a thriving energy economy and the hundreds of thousands of jobs it supports.”
LC School of PNG center coordinator Marianne Orlandini expressed her gratitude for the congressman’s support of their operations and for his “willingness to take the time to stop in and learn about the program and the benefits that it provides for the students.”