Protect Our Water! Marcellus Debate Bubbles to the Surface

Raucous Crowd Meets on Shale Debate

Forces for and against drilling clash at session run by U.S. advisory board in Washington, Pa.

By Erich Schwartzel
Beaver County Blue via Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

June 14, 2011 – Competing crowds tried to out-shout each other for more than four hours Monday night as Department of Energy representatives came to Washington & Jefferson College for help in forming a national plan for gas drilling, but instead sat quiet as a vicious neighbor-versus-neighbor ordeal played out in the auditorium before them.

The itinerary was simple, with speakers getting two minutes each to address the U.S. Secretary of Energy Advisory Board members charged with forming a policy on gas drilling regulations and the hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," extraction process that allows access to most of the gas. It quickly became a referendum on the industry that has infused money and controversy into the towns that lie on the Marcellus Shale gas formation.

It was an auditorium divided: In the span of 10 minutes, the panel members were called drug cartels by one speaker and patriotic heroes by another.

A soldier’s mother choked up when she talked of her son working toward energy independence in Iraq, while another called shale gas "the new asbestos." A West Virginia woman showed the respirator she makes her children wear because of bad air, while another speaker praised an industry that’s supported college scholarships. Recent college graduates extolled a business that gave them jobs in the middle of a recession, while one protestor behind the microphone mockingly waved a wad of cash above his head.

The advisory board’s natural gas subcommittee members — Steven Holditch, Fred Krupp, John Deutch, Kathleen McGinty and Mark Zoback — said little beyond "thank you" as each speaker sat down, but those two words were usually drowned out by audience response to what had just been said.

The advisory board is part of an Obama administration look at lowering the country’s dependence on foreign oil. The subcommittee has been charged with examining the hydraulic fracturing process that creates minifissures in the shale that cause gas to seep out. The subcommittee will report back to the advisory board on July 20, after two other such gatherings in Washington, D.C., before then.

Some familiar faces from both sides of the drilling debate appeared.

Doug Shields, a Pittsburgh councilman, received a partial standing ovation when he said the potential risk of a well-site accident forbids activity in the city.

A well accident can force a one-mile evacuation zone, he said.

"Try to do that in the city of Pittsburgh," he said. The city council has issued a moratorium on drilling within the city limits.

Energy company representatives and pro-drilling landowners were on hand to defend the industry they say has safely brought stable jobs to the region.

"Our No. 2 value is environmental compliance, and that’s second only to safety," said Laural Ziemba, manager of public relations at CNX Gas Corp. and a lifelong Washington County resident. Addressing her detractors in the audience, she said, "Our goals don’t conflict with your goals."

Protesters who called the practice untested and potentially polluting pleaded for further testing on any health effects before drilling continues.

"I’ll show you what cancer looks like. It’s not pretty," said Dana Dolney, a breast cancer survivor and member of Marcellus Protest. "Nobody begrudges you a job. Why do you begrudge me my health?" she said before returning to her seat amid cheers and boos.

The controversy leading up to the meeting was amplified Friday when the Post-Gazette and other news outlets reported that Energy in Depth, a leading industry lobbying group, was sponsoring trips to the meeting for pro-drilling landowners from northeastern Pennsylvania and New York.

"We paid our own way / How about you?" was one repeating refrain from protesters in the auditorium.

Susan Dorsey joined 10 landowners on the Energy in Depth trip, napping and talking in a bus for seven hours from her home in Binghamton, N.Y. The hydraulic fracturing process has been banned in her state, and Ms. Dorsey traveled to Washington, Pa., to tell others to use the energy "that we in New York cannot use" and wean America’s dependence on foreign oil.

"We’re killing people overseas" for energy, she said.

The discourse was already at shouting levels before the meeting even started and before the doors to the auditorium even opened.

Before the meeting started, a protest group calling for more regulation, more taxes and more transparency formed outside the fine arts building that housed the meeting. When the auditorium doors opened, the protesters took to the floor, singing "This Land Is Your Land," while Ken Gayman, a Greene County farmer, stood on the stage and waved an American flag above his head.

Erich Schwartzel: or             412-263-1455      .

First published on June 14, 2011 at 12:00 am

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