Shale gas CEO: Anti-drilling activists 'extremists'

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Former Gov. Tom Ridge speaks at the Convention Center, backing more support for domestic natural gas. (Ed Hille / Staff Photographer)

The head of the largest natural gas company operating in the Marcellus Shale had a few choice words Wednesday for anti-drilling activists, whose vision, he said, would turn the clock back to the Dark Ages.

"Our success has disrupted their dreams of a fantasy world of no fossil fuels," Aubrey McClendon, the chief executive of Chesapeake Energy Co., told a shale-industry conference at the Convention Center.

While protesters rallied on Arch Street outside the Convention Center, the outspoken McClendon called out "extremists" during a keynote address at Shale Gas Insight, a two-day conference sponsored by the Marcellus Shale Coalition.

"I've asked a few of them from time to time to tell me about clean gas drilling, and they tell me it doesn't exist," he said. "And so, very simply, they want no drilling. That's fine, I suppose, if you don't like heat in your home, electricity in your office, a job to go to, and food on your plate."

McClendon said the choice was clear: "We can follow a path to economic ruin built on fantasies about the viability of wind and solar and the risks of natural gas. Or we can seek to safely build on the reality of the Marcellus Shale American Gas Treasure."

McClendon's combative remarks capped a day of speeches hailing the economic promise of developing the Marcellus Shale, a deep gas-bearing rock formation underlying much of Pennsylvania.

But extracting gas from shale requires hydraulic fracturing, a process whose environmental consequences have drawn the wrath of activists. "Fracking" is now under federal review.

Industry leaders, who say they advocate the responsible development of shale, emphasized the jobs, wealth, lower energy prices, and cleaner emissions generated by shale development, and portrayed it as a domestic alternative to imported oil.

"This is red, white, and blue energy," said J. Brett Harvey, chairman of Consol Energy Inc., a Canonsburg company that develops coal and natural gas.

Former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, who has also served as U.S. homeland security secretary, joined the calls to adopt an energy policy that gives more support to domestic natural gas development.

"We are an energy-rich country," said Ridge, whose Harrisburg lobbying firm worked for the industry last year. "We have no one to blame for disproportionate dependence on foreign oil but ourselves."

Not every speaker was fulsome.

Former Gov. Ed Rendell, whose administration set the stage for Marcellus drilling, said he warned the industry in early 2010 that the tide of public opinion was turning against it. Citing a litany of drilling violations, he criticized the industry's resistance of a severance tax on gas extraction.

Rendell suggested that the industry ask his successor, Gov. Corbett, to reverse his opposition to an extraction tax on natural gas. Corbett is scheduled to speak Thursday.

The presence of protesters did not pass unnoticed. Conventioneers snapped pictures of the crowd from the center's upper floors, and their comments reflected the sentiments of one side in the shale-gas culture war.

"All these people look like they just came out of Cuba," a man wearing a blue blazer said into a cellphone. "Don't they have jobs?"

It was McClendon, the Chesapeake founder, whose company is based in Oklahoma City, who took off the gloves.

"The privilege of unfettered speech can lead to unfettered fearmongering," said McClendon, whose remarks were relayed by cellphone to the protesters outside.

McClendon recited the benefits of gas drilling - thousands of jobs created, tax revenue generated, and the billions in wealth created and retained in the United States.

"And remind me, what value have the protesters outside created? What jobs have they created?"

McClendon said fears about hydraulic fracturing were overblown. He downplayed incidents in which natural gas leaked into drinking-water wells, and contrasted the problems against the benefits.

"Looking back, was anyone hurt or was there any permanent, or even temporary, environmental damage in those incidents? No. No. No. Some folks were inconvenienced, for sure, and for that we're deeply sorry. However, tens of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars of landowner wealth have been created by drilling in Pennsylvania."

He said the real motive of the activists was not protecting the environment but promoting a fossil-fuel-free "fantasy" world.

"The real game plan is to use political pressure to force Americans to pay exorbitant energy costs for the so-called green fuel sources that they prefer," he said. "To win, they have chosen to demonize the one fuel that makes their plan look environmentally and economically ridiculous - natural gas."

Coverage of the protest


Contact staff writer Andrew Maykuth at 215-854-2947 or amaykuth@phillynews.com.