Only a few years ago, few in West Virginia spent much time talking about the Marcellus shale, a layer of rock thousands of feet underground. Now discussion on activity in that layer of Earth has been on front pages and stages across the state.
One of the men many look to for answers about the natural gas is Nicholas "Corky" DeMarco, the executive director of the West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association. He's led the state's oil and natural gas producers since November 2002.
Of course, it was only in recent years that the organization faced scrutiny — or really much attention at all.
"I think one of things we've had to change was our way of doing things," DeMarco said. "Our business model was to keep our heads down and go to work every day and stay out of the line of fire and allow the coal folks to get beat up on a daily basis and not worry about the problems they were having."
The gas and oil drillers in West Virginia didn't have to spend much time worrying about public perception back when DeMarco, 64, first took the reins of the organization.
"We had about 39 active members. We had probably quite a few uncommitted members, people who weren't as committed as we wanted," DeMarco said. "Now we have over 225 members, and we're humming along."
Then drillers learned they could use techniques such as horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing to release natural gas and other hydrocarbons with returns virtually unheard of with conventional wells. It wasn't long that the magnifying glass was put on the industry, and DeMarco soon found himself fielding a lot more telephone calls and speaking requests.
"It's a different ball game," he said. "It's an exciting time to be in this industry. I wish I was 25 years younger and in this industry right now. We're just on the beginning of something that I think is — and I hate to use this term because it's overused but is absolutely correct — this is a game changer. It's a game-changer for the state, this part of the country."
DeMarco is a lifelong resident of West Virginia. He didn't spend his formative years in the oil or gas fields of West Virginia, but said he took on the responsibility of leading WVONGA because of its potential for the state.
"It's the opportunity we've all thought about, hoped about and dreamed about," DeMarco said. "It's the opportunity to look at our resources in a different way than we've looked at them before. We've always known we had resources, but until recently have not been able to produce those resources."
He said he wants to be there to support the development of a resource that will benefit the state's children and grandchildren. If that's to happen, DeMarco said, the resource has to be developed as efficiently and environmentally safe as possible.
Working for West Virginia
DeMarco graduated with a finance and economics major from West Virginia State College and earned a post-graduate degree from Marshall University and West Virginia College of Graduate Studies. While the list of places he lived is rather short — "Charleston, Charleston, Charleston" — the list of places he has worked is anything but.
Immediately after college, he went to work for a construction company as a business manager. He then spent about 25 years working for the state between other projects. He was the accountant auditor for the state, director of auditing and rate setting and Medicaid director for several years.
"When I was working for the state, I was asked to be Medicaid director," DeMarco said. "I knew a little bit about Medicaid, never thought I would be asked for those kind of challenges, but I was asked, and I said that I would do it. It was rough; nothing's easy in life. You've got to accept your responsibility if you want and move forward the best way you can."
DeMarco played a lead role in formation of a systems integration and software development company. He was also, for a while, part owner in a medical waste business.
"We were the first medical waste business to have a statewide hauling contract," DeMarco said. "We sold it, and I went back to work for the state."
DeMarco worked as the director of operations for the state of West Virginia under the late Gov. Cecil Underwood. He landed the job after helping Underwood get elected in 1996.
"I don't know whether it was a curse or not, but I ran Democrats for Underwood's statewide campaign to get him elected and was successful in doing that," DeMarco said.
DeMarco retired from the state in 2002 and would later help form the West Virginia Natural Resources Transporters Association, a lobby group for coal truck operators representing about 50 independent haulers.
DeMarco said he has a "tremendous work ethic," something that was part of the reason he has been allowed to move through so many careers.
"I've been pretty lucky that people have given me chances, and I've been able to perform to their expectations," he said. "I'm blessed in those regards. I've always been fortunate in people allowing me the opportunities to prove themselves."
As a manager, DeMarco at times gets the opportunity to pass the same opportunities he has been afforded to others.
"You have to trust other people and give them the opportunities to make decisions and guide their decision-making processes," DeMarco said. "I think that's what people look for when they are looking for jobs — the ability to showcase their individual talents. As a manager, director or supervisor you need to set the goals and allow people to be creative and expressive while not losing sight of the mission."
How does someone do so many different jobs requiring such a varying degree of skill sets? Partially, it seems by confidence.
"I think one of the most important things I've learned is that you can be successful in almost anything you do," DeMarco said.
More specifically, DeMarco offers two rules for succeeding in his line of work where building relationships and assembling information can be crucial to statewide policymaking.
"First, you've got to be truthful whenever you're giving testimony or talking to people," he said. "Second, if you are going to be a leader, you have to understand and be able to work with other people."
Life After WVONGA
DeMarco said he often has to make the hard decisions, but some you just have to make. One decision he's not quite ready to make his what to do next — after WVONGA.
"I haven't really thought about it though, I'm not really ready to go," he said. "Some might have a different idea for me, but I'm not ready to go."
When — and he emphasizes "if" — he decides he is done, he will take to the outdoors, with activities he already enjoys in his free time.
"I love the outdoors," DeMarco said. "I do a little fishing, some hunting and some hanging out at my camp on the Elk River. I'm falling in love with it."
In fact, if he stops working, he'll probably spend a lot time at his camp adding a fourth place to his list: Charleston, Charleston, Charleston and not far from Charleston.
"Probably if and when these guys run me out or I decide I'm not productive enough, I'll go up and move to the Elk River and enjoy the good life," DeMarco said. "I'll watch the otters in the river and spend a quiet rest of my life."
He didn't say whether or not he would take a dip in the Elk River, like he did in the Kanawha River as young boy. DeMarco grew up near the river in a blue-collar neighborhood on the west side of Charleston.
"I swam in the Kanawha River when nobody else should have been in there," he said. "I guarantee that when they were dumping the chemicals and raw sewage in there you weren't supposed to be in there, but I didn't have anywhere else to go swimming."
His wife is Catherine DeMarco, the West Virginia travel manager. He has two grown sons, Matthew and Joey, who is married to Katie. He also has a stepson, Jason Milano, who is married to Sohini and they have a son, Arjun.