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Conservation groups debate gas drilling ties

Associated Press Modified: November 23, 2012 at 11:00 am •  Published: November 23, 2012
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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.

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