By CASEY JUNKINS
WHEELING, W.Va. - Those working in West Virginia's oil and natural gas fields have seen their annual salaries grow by an average of $8,100 since 2008, thanks to the Marcellus Shale rush.
A new report from WorkForce West Virginia also shows that since the Marcellus activity began ramping up in 2008, another 916 state workers were directly employed by the oil and natural gas extraction business. The report shows these workers are now earning average salaries of $70,082.
However, these numbers do not count the hundreds of employees working to install pipelines and related gas transportation equipment. Since 2008, the number of workers engaged in these fields in West Virginia has jumped from 1,276 to 1,920 - while average annual salaries increased to from $60,329 in 2008 to $71,723.
"The overall effect on specific industries in West Virginia due to activity within the Marcellus Shale is becoming more evident ..." the report states.
WorkForce also uses a separate category to count those employed as excavators, surveyors and those who cut well casings. In these areas, West Virginia saw the number of workers jump from 2,782 in 2008 to 3,793, as the average salary also accelerated from $46,615 in 2008 to $59,969.
Industry leaders have said the Wheeling area - with its location right along the Ohio River between the Marcellus Shale of West Virginia and Pennsylvania and the Utica Shale in Ohio - could be the epicenter of drilling-related economic development. Evidence of this comes as companies like Chesapeake Energy move the focus of their operations from eastern Pennsylvania's "dry" methane-dominated gas fields to the "wet" gas areas of Ohio and West Virginia's Northern Panhandle. This gas also contains the profitable ethane, propane, butane and pentane.
"Over the next five years, most of the action is going to center around Wheeling. It is going to be all about the liquids," said R. Dennis Xander, vice president of the Independent Oil and Gas Association of West Virginia.
In the Northern Panhandle, WorkForce shows that between 2008 and 2011, the number of people employed in all sectors of the oil and gas business increased from 78 to 232. Though the agency does not have more current statistics, this number may be higher now because of all the activity in the area.
The area of the state that now has the highest number of oil and gas workers in the north/central portion of West Virginia. In counties such as Monongalia (home to Morgantown), Marion (home to Fairmont), Doddridge, Braxton and Randolph, there are 4,275 people working in the oil and gas industry.
In the southwestern portion of West Virginia, a region long-dominated by the coal industry, natural gas and oil drilling is on the upswing. In 2008, the drilling of gas wells employed only 14 people in counties such as Mingo, Logan, Wayne and Boone. There are now 178 direct oil and gas workers in this area.
In addition to these jobs counted by WorkForce, the presence of the drilling industry does lead to increased employment in certain areas, as restaurant and hotel owners report being very busy these days because of drillers working in the area.
There are also companies that supply materials to the drilling industry that may hire more employees to meet these needs, while retailers may also see an upswing in some business because of mineral owners receiving spending money from lease and royalty checks.
New businesses to service the oil and gas industry also continue popping up, including the new Arrowsmith Fabrication shop in South Wheeling.
Owners Michael Siebieda and Brett Francis work in the areas of welding and machining, as they anticipate hiring additional employees once gaining more work in the gas fields.
More gas industry jobs paying nearly $30 per hour are on the way to Marshall County soon, as Dominion Resources is hiring 40-45 full-time, permanent workers for the natural gas processing plant that the company plans to open this month.
There will be positions for electricians, plant operators and loaders.