The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA


December 5, 2012

Drilling dialogue benefits everyone

Industry leaders, conservationists talking

— Should Pennsylvania’s conservation groups have dialogue with the natural gas drilling industry?

Unquestionably yes.

Should they be accepting driller dollars to court the public and to finance their missions?

Absolutely not. But the issue does raise – along with suspicious eyebrows – interesting possibilities.

More than a few feathers probably were ruffled last week when The Associated Press reported that conservation watchdog groups such as the Sierra Club and Audubon Society have been accepting or are considering accepting donations from drillers.

“It caught me completely off guard. I see that as somehow basically latching on and riding the coattails of the industry,” Don Williams of Harleysville, Montgomery County, said.

“The message itself bothered me.”

Williams, the AP said, was at summer meetings co-sponsored by the Pennsylvania chapter of the Audubon Society, Marcellus Shale Coalition and the Ruffled Grouse Society. The gatherings encouraged birdwatchers, anglers, hunters and hikers to ask questions about drilling.

It emerged that at some of the meetings discussion turned to whether the industry might donate   $30 million to set up an endowment to fund research on drilling impacts.

The idea of donations “came up several times,” Williams said on his blog. To which Phil Wallis, executive director of the Audubon group, responded that no decision had been made to seek gas drilling donations, rather that talk of a $30 million donation was just a hypothetical number about funding a research project on drilling that a number of conservation groups might provide staff for.

The big question, Wallis told the AP, is “how to deal with this overwhelming impact.”

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 Energy, an oil and natural gas company. After deciding it would no longer take such donations, the Sierra Club launched a campaign that is critical of the gas drilling industry.

While we strongly oppose conservation groups accepting dollars from industries they suspect of environmental wrongdoing, we do see major benefits when adversaries regularly meet and thrash out their differences.

We saw a good example of that when Gamesa scheduled public forums inviting conservation groups and opponents to question the windmill giant’s mission in our region.

Sitting down with leaders in the gas drilling industry makes sense, said Mark Brownstein, 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.

Mr. Brownstein is spot on.

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