By Erich Schwartzel
WAYNESBURG — Consol Energy made $346.8 million last year and spent $4,953 of it Thursday night on a 1,524-pound, black-and-white steer named Oreo.
Oreo belonged to an elementary school student named Gregory Staggers until Laural Ziemba, the Consol Energy director of community relations, started waving her auction number at the Greene County Fair 4-H Market Sale.
Some locals joined the bidding once Consol expressed interest, hoping to force the energy giant with deep pockets up another quarter per pound. “Three-and-a-three-and-a-three-and-a- … Three-and-a-quarter. Three-and-a-quarter. Three-and-a-quarter. SOLD!”
A few folks clapped as the Canonsburg company picked up another of the four animals it would buy that evening. The auctioneer announced Oreo’s fate: The steer would be butchered and the meat sent to St. Ann’s Food Bank in Waynesburg on behalf of Consol Energy.
The natural gas industry is growing almost as fast as Oreo once did — the steer went from 694 pounds to 1,524 in less than eight months — and it turns out that one of the social events of the year, the county fair, isn’t a bad way to introduce itself to its skeptical neighbors. Drilling in the natural gas rich Marcellus Shale has turned the annual summer gatherings into attractions with Nascar-style endorsements meant to help shore up support for a controversial industry planning on a decades-long investment in the region.
Local businesses have always vied for the ribbon that comes with a prized purchase, and the county fair season has introduced some heavy hitters to the mix.
It’s an outreach program that can add some colorful assets to a company’s portfolio.
Six of the seven champion lambs in Greene County were purchased by energy firms (the grand champion went to grocer Giant Eagle). At the Fayette County Fair earlier this month, guests took in events at the Chevron Outdoor Arena. Next week at the Washington County Agricultural Fair, fairgoers can participate in EQT Day with a Spam contest in the morning and barbershop chorus concert in the evening.
Oil and gas sponsorships account for about one-third of the Greene County Fair’s total budget this year, said Debbie Stephenson, the fair’s secretary/treasurer. That extra money has come in handy as state funding drops. In 2005, state funding for fairs was $4.6 million. Last year, it was $1.2 million.
The first Marcellus wells were drilled in 2004, and about two years later, energy firms started county fair outreach, said Eric Cowden, community outreach manager for the Marcellus Shale Coalition lobbying group.
“As traditional [as] summer fairs are for Pennsylvania, it has become that kind of tradition for these energy companies,” he said. “It’s part of their makeup now.”
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