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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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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.