Some anti-drilling activists change their tactics, tone

PITTSBURGH — For years, activists have warned that fracking can have disastrous consequences — ruined water and air, sickened people and animals, a ceaseless parade of truck traffic.

Now some critics are doing what was once unthinkable: working with the industry. Some are even signing lucrative gas leases and speaking about the environmental benefits of gas.

In one northeastern Pennsylvania village that became a global flashpoint in the debate over fracking, the switch has raised more than a few eyebrows.

A few weeks ago, Victoria Switzer and other activists endorsed a candidate for governor who supports natural gas production from gigantic reserves like the Marcellus Shale, albeit with more regulation and new taxes.

“We had to work with the industry. There is no magic wand to make this go away,” said Switzer, who recently formed a group that seeks to work with drillers on improved air quality standards. “Tunnel vision isn’t good. Realism is good.”

For Switzer, the endorsement was a nod to reality; for some of her onetime allies, a betrayal. Either way, it was a sign that anti-drilling activism is evolving, with some opponents shifting tactics to reflect that shale gas is likely here to stay.

Pennsylvania residents concerned about drilling no longer have the luxury of simply calling for a ban, Switzer said. Not with the Pennsylvania and West Virginia portions of the Marcellus already yielding more than $10 billion worth of gas annually, making it the nation’s most prolific gas field.

“It’s in full swing, and it’s simplistic to think you could just tell them all to stop,” said Rebecca Roter, another Pennsylvania activist.

The enormous volume of gas flowing from the Marcellus and other U.S. shale formations has turned energy markets upside-down and led to wholesale prices that are about one-third of what customers in Europe or Asia pay. That’s led to lower costs for consumers and industry.

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