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November 23, 2012

Conservation groups debate gas drilling ties

PITTSBURGH (AP) — As a natural gas drilling boom sweeps Pennsylvania and other states, conservation groups are debating whether it makes sense to work with the industry to minimize impacts to the environment — and whether to accept industry donations.

The big question is "how to deal with this overwhelming impact," said Phil Wallis, executive director of the Pennsylvania chapter of the Audubon Society, adding that the industry "in general, is interested in resolving these issues."

The drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has made it possible to tap into deep reserves of oil and gas but has also raised concerns about pollution. Large volumes of water, along with sand and hazardous chemicals, are injected underground to break rock apart and free the oil and gas.

Over the past five years thousands of new wells have been drilled across Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio, and hundreds of miles of pipeline have been laid to transport the gas to market. And that's just a snapshot of a similar boom in Texas, Colorado and other states.

Wallis and the Pennsylvania Audubon chapter discovered that even casual conversations with the drilling industry can generate controversy.

In August, Audubon partnered with the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry group, and the Ruffed Grouse Society to hold a series of gatherings for birdwatchers, anglers, hunters and hikers to ask questions about drilling. The meetings didn't attract much notice until it emerged that some had discussed whether the industry might donate $30 million to set up an endowment to fund research on drilling impacts.

The idea of donations "came up several times," said Don Williams, a Harleysville, Pa. resident.

"It caught me completely off guard. I see that as somehow basically latching on and riding the coattails of the industry," Williams said. "The message itself bothered me."

After Williams wrote a blog post about the meeting, Audubon quickly responded that there had been no decision to seek gas drilling donations. Wallis said the $30 million was just a hypothetical number about funding a research project on drilling that a number of conservations groups might provide staff for.

Williams said a representative of Chesapeake Energy was at the meeting, acting as more of a general industry representative. Chesapeake spokesman Rory Sweeny declined to comment on whether the company is donating to any environmental groups.

Two more public meetings with outdoor groups are scheduled for December, said Steve Forde, a spokesman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition.

"The sportsmen and conservation communities are an important part of Pennsylvania's heritage and key partners in responsible shale gas development," Forde wrote in an email. But he added that the coalition hasn't discussed donations with any of the outdoor groups that helped set up the sessions.

It's a sensitive issue. Earlier this year, the Sierra Club acknowledged that from 2007 to 2010 it had secretly accepted more than $26 million from individuals or subsidies connected to Chesapeake. After deciding it would no longer take such donations, the group launched a campaign that is critical of the gas drilling industry.

Environmental groups and some scientists say there hasn't been enough research on water and air pollution issues that stem from drilling. The industry and many federal and state officials say the practice is safe when done properly, and that many rules on air pollution and disclosure of the chemicals used in fracking are being strengthened.

Sitting down with people in the gas drilling industry makes sense, said Mark Brownstein, the chief counsel for the energy program at the Environmental Defense Fund.

"If environmental groups who are both passionate and knowledgeable fail to engage the natural gas industry, who will?" Brownstein asked. "If we simply sit and protest, we're missing an opportunity" to create stronger regulations.

Some conservation groups are finding that they can't avoid the industry.

The Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania owns or has easements to about 500 acres of land in the region, and drilling company representatives have approached them numerous times, according to executive director Jim Bonner.

Bonner said the chapter decided that current regulations aren't strong enough to meet their standards for environmental protection, so they haven't signed any gas leases. But they're not rejecting the idea.

"We kind of put up the mirror, and said, we are consumers of gas," and that it would be hypocritical to not try to understand all the pros and cons around drilling, and Audubon's place in the debate.

"If a company came to us and said we've developed a process that does not use any chemicals, we would probably almost feel obliged to consider that, if only to help demonstrate a best practice could be developed," Bonner said. "We all agree that energy is needed. I'd love to think that we can extract it better here than somewhere else around the world."

John Eichinger, president of the Ruffed Grouse Society, hopes the discussions with the drilling industry lead to some changes. He thinks the Marcellus Shale Coalition may support some of the suggestions that conservation groups made for stricter regulations.

 

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