If anyone ever wanted proof that the growing movement against fracking is becoming a powerful force for protecting our water, air, and public health, all you would have to do is listen to what oil and gas executives are doing and saying. My number one take-away from two days in the belly of the beast at a major industry meeting is that industry is obsessed with our movement and that we need to continue to fight harder and louder.
I found it fitting that billionaire Aubrey McClendon, one of the 400 richest individuals in the United States and the CEO of Chesapeake Energy, was slated to deliver the luncheon address on Wednesday, the first day of the Marcellus Shale Coalition’s Shale Gas Insight Conference held last week in Philadelphia. McClendon took the stage in front of 1,600 oil and gas executives, just minutes after the Shale Gas Outrage, the counter rally of more than 1,000 people working to stop shale gas drilling in the Marcelluskicked off in the street outside of the Convention Center.
Chesapeake Energy, the second largest producer of natural gas in the United States behind Exxon Mobil, paid at least $50,000 for the conference, making them a platinum sponsor (along with Range Resources and Talisman Energy). The perk? The CEO gets to address the full audience.
But for those of us who helped to plan the Shale Gas Outrage counter rally, we could not have asked for more perfect timing for Mr. McClendon’s speech. Of all the oil and gas industry CEOs, McClendon is not known for mincing words. In fact, it was a challenge for the media to select his best insult for the protestors and critics of his industry. He called those of us concerned by the serious public health and environmental problems caused by shale gas drilling “extremists,” “fractivists” rather than “factivists,”who are perpetuating “unfettered fear-mongering” and wanting to live in a world where “it’s cold, it’s dark, and we’re all hungry.”
As Star Telegram columnist Mike Norman pointed out, with all of his influence, you would think McClendon “could come up with a little bit more sophisticated way of dealing with his industry’s critics. Calling them names and belittling what they have to say might impress the people who already support gas drilling, but it won’t win over any skeptics.” I’m sure the industry’s Public Relations people were squirming in their seats.
I immediately noticed that, instead of delivering the speech described in the conference program on “America’s opportunity to use clean, domestic, affordable natural gas in the transportation sector and provide our country a pathway away from OPEC oil dependency,” McClendon spent the bulk of his speech talking about the protest and lambasting the movement against fracking.
In fact, after spending two days at the conference, my “shale gas insight” is that the industry is spending a lot of time and resources responding to the growing movement against fracking. Every major session discussed the “challenges” facing the industry on the public relations front. The American Natural Gas Alliance presentation openly talked about the negatives in the media and how to overcome those through this messaging: Number one, job creation; and number two, energy independence. They are encouraging the companies to agree to disclosure of chemicals because “with transparency comes trust.”
Furthermore, the America Petroleum Institute presented on their performance criteria that standardize the industry’s practices, pointing out that the industry is measured by its least diligent operator. There were numerous sessions on Best Management Practices and creating a Safe Working Environment. As Star Telegram columnist Mike Norman puts it, “the natural gas industry can’t ignore the fractivists.”
In his speech, McClendon brought up the issue of methane contamination and then dismissed it by saying, “Looking back, was anybody hurt? Was there any permanent or even temporary environmental damage? No, no and no. Some folks were inconvenienced, for sure, and for that we’re deeply sorry,” McClendon said. “Problem identified, problem solved. That’s how we do it in the natural gas industry.”
Overall, McClendon’s speech and the rest of the conference made two things clear. First, the ever-growing movement against fracking is a major industry problem and it is not easy for them to solve – it’s working and we need to continue to build our movement’s scope and power. Second, big oil and gas are not going to sit back and ignore what we’re doing. These already powerful interests will be even more aggressive and sophisticated in pursuing their goal of fracking America.