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“Welcome to Shale Country”

Is the debate over the merits of shale gas being bought?

On December 11, New York Governor David Paterson issued an executive order that prohibits hydraulic fracturing, the drilling method being used to extract natural gas from the state's Marcellus shale, until at least July 1, 2011. Hydraulic fracturing – hydrofracking as it's called for short – pumps water and chemicals at high pressure to crack rock and release natural gas from deep underground shale formations. The environmental impacts of hydrofracking, especially to groundwater, have raised serious concerns and prompted opposition in communities where this drilling is underway or contemplated. They've also prompted the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) ongoing review of the drilling method. Among the concerns is that gas and drilling chemicals can contaminate water supplies. Videos of residents of these communities setting fire to gas-contaminated tap water have circulated widely.

photo of a poster, words - They said it was safe to drill in the Gulf too

Last month, the New York State Assembly voted overwhelmingly for a temporary moratorium on hydrofracking and the Pittsburgh city council voted unanimously to bar such natural gas extraction within city limits. And on December 7 the EPA issued an "endangerment order" to the Range Resources corporation in Texas in response to water contamination where hydrofracking is underway.

Shale deposits underlie the Allegheny Mountains in New York and Pennsylvania and are found in a number of other states, including Arkansas, Colorado, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Texas. Shale gas is now the fastest growing natural gas resource in the United States and the number of wells drilled since 2008 has grown dramatically. In Pennsylvania, 196 wells were drilled and 519 permitted in 2008. In 2009, those numbers jumped to 763 drilled and 1985 permitted. Many of these are close to homes.

So when I saw the half-page, full-color ad in the December 9 New York Times with the headline "Welcome to Shale Country" that invited readers to "Get to know your energy future... See what the buzz is all about... Only at ShaleCountry.com," I was curious. No organization name was included so I went to the website whose home-page features a collage of audio-linked snapshots under the caption, "Real life stories from communities at the center of America's shale gas revolution."

ShaleCountry.com is a project of the American Clean Skies Foundation (ACSF), a non-profit founded in 2007 with a mission "to advance America's energy independence and a cleaner, low-carbon environment through expanded use of natural gas, renewables and efficiency." To learn more about ShaleCountry.com and other ACSF projects, I contacted the organization's DC office. Communications director Jack Deutsch said he'd like to speak off the record and later sent an email referring me to the organization website. So I took another look.

ACSF board chair is Aubrey K. McClendon, chairman, CEO, and co-founder of Chesapeake Energy, according to the company web site, the second largest producer of natural gas in the U.S. that "owns leading positions in the Barnett, Fayetteville, Haynesville, Marcellus and Bossier natural gas shale." His fellow ACSF board members, including Chesapeake Energy senior VP and lobbyist Tom Price, all have longstanding interests in the natural gas and energy business.

McClendon has funded natural gas promotion campaigns before – the Clean Sky Coalition and "Know Your Power," which lobbied against coal-fired power plants in Kansas, Texas, and McClendon's home state of Oklahoma. He's spent heavily on these anti-coal campaigns.

This current effort, which includes a 30-minute film on shale gas, a news site called "EnergyNow!" and a national ad campaign promoting natural gas, is expensive. In 2008 (the most recent information available), the American Clean Skies Foundation reported to the IRS more than $25 million in grants and contributions, up from just over $3 million in 2007. In 2008, ACSF paid more than $19 million for "program management" to Ackerman McQueen – an Oklahoma advertising and public relations firm that has also worked for Chesapeake Energy – along with an additional $500,000+ to WJLA TV, the Arlington, VA ABC affiliate that airs the "EnergyNow!" TV show. In 2008 ACSF also paid over $769,000 to the law and lobbying firm Brownstein Farber Hyatt Schreck, which along with Chesapeake Energy, founded the Energy Research Coalition that has lobbied for federal natural gas and petroleum research and development funding.

American Clean Skies Foundation spending for 2008: approximately $23.8 million. The EPA's hydraulic fracturing research study budget for 2010: $1.9 million.

When a Grist reporter described American Clean Skies Foundation as "a natural gas group" ACSF CEO Gregory C. Staple – who in 2008 and 2009 lobbied for Chesapeake Energy while at the law firm Vinson & Elkins – responded by saying, "referring to ACSF as a 'natural gas group' is a bit misleading. Sort of like still referring to the Carnegie Foundation as a steel group or the Rockefeller Brothers Fund as an oil group... I think the right phrase is probably 'a clean energy oriented foundation.'"

Beyond the questions of groundwater destruction, there's concern that hydrofracking is releasing enough ethane to make this gas more climate-unfriendly than coal. Studies are preliminary but a report by Cornell University professor Robert W. Howarth suggests that the carbon footprint of natural gas obtained by hydrofracking may undermine the argument for this fuel as a "clean" energy source.

Meanwhile back in "shale country," Cathy Pedler, forest watch coordinator for the Allegheny Defense Project that is challenging water withdrawal permits Pennsylvania has granted for hydrofracking operations, describes the American Clean Skies Foundation effort as one that's "trying to control the dialogue by presenting a false choice between coal and natural gas. We need heathy local landscapes," said Pedler. "We're fighting for our land and our water. They're fighting for something else."

The EPA's study is scheduled to conclude in 2012.

Elizabeth Grossman, Contributing Writer, Earth Island Journal
Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, Watershed: The Undamming of America, and other books. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, Salon, The Washington Post, The Nation, Mother Jones, Grist, Earth Island Journal, and other publications.

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