Drillers to Pack Hydraulic Fracturing Safety Hearing

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
11 June 2011
By Timothy Puko

A group funded by the oil industry is offering free meals, hotel rooms and transportation across the state to bring sympathizers to a federal safety hearing on Monday on the drilling technique of hydraulic fracturing.

An offer from the Northeast Marcellus Initiative to bus or fly 15 to 25 members to the hearing in Washington County has angered local environmentalists who say they're being shouted down by the rich industry.

"Regular citizens who have concerns about the onslaught of drilling are paying our own way, taking off work, rearranging schedules, etc.," Debbie Borowiec of Upper Burrell wrote in an e-mail to the Tribune-Review. "All we are trying to do is protect ourselves, our families, and our communities. We do not have the deep pockets of the gas industry."

Environmental groups do the same thing, and the industry just wants to help supporters have their voices heard on short notice, said Tom Shepstone, a Wayne County consultant and landowner who runs the Marcellus group.

Airfare is only for older people and the leaders of landowner groups, he wrote in the e-mail he sent to members in 18 counties in northeast Pennsylvania and southern New York.

When protesters travel, they have to chip in $10 or $25, even when larger groups organize busing, they said. Officials with PennEnvironment told people to carpool to Washington County if they need to, said Erika Staaf, a clean water advocate at the group's Pittsburgh office.

"There was no lead time whatsoever," Shepstone said of the meeting, announced on Tuesday by the Department of Energy. "It's important that somebody be able to look in somebody's eyes and see their passion for this."

The Northeast Marcellus Initiative was established this spring by Energy in Depth, a two-year-old group based in Washington, D.C., and funded by members of the Independent Petroleum Association of America. Shepstone and the group's spokesman, Chris Tucker, declined to say how much they're spending on the initiative or next week's trip.

Energy in Depth's annual budget is in the low six figures, Tucker said, declining to be more specific. The association had a budget of about $8 million in 2009, according to federal tax returns.

Many supporters of drilling are farmers struggling through the recession, hoping drilling revenue will help save their land, Shepstone said. Many are shut out of drilling into the gas-rich Marcellus shale by moratoriums on deep shale drilling in New York and in the Delaware River Basin.

"They have full-time jobs. They have full-time lives and families," Tucker said. "I think it's ridiculous that the idea that putting 15 people on a bus is tantamount to shouting (opponents) down."

Environmental groups say they have been struggling through the recession, too. Many subsist on small donations from individual donors and cannot easily compete with industry-funded groups that can fly people across the state and pay for hotel stays, Staaf said.

Timothy Puko can be reached at tpuko@tribweb.com or 412-320-7991.