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Companies Are Going All Out to Convince People Natural Gas Is a Clean Alternative to Oil and Coal

But the industry is leaving behind a wake of law suits and contaminated water.
 
 
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There has never been a better moment for natural gas. It is the "other" fossil fuel, touted as a clean alternative to coal and oil. It may be non-renewable, proponents argue, but it is a bridge or transition fuel to a happier future. Not surprisingly, the industry has gone to great lengths to persuade local residents, members of congress, and the public at large that there's nothing to worry about. Chesapeake Energy Corporation, one of the major players drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale, which stretches from New York to Tennessee, has successfully billed itself as an environmentally friendly operation.

So when Cabot Oil and Gas, a Houston based energy company, was fined for several hydraulic fracturing fluid spills in northeastern Pennsylvania last year, Chesapeake took the opportunity to distance itself from what had become an embarrassing situation. In addition to the frack fluid spills, there were numerous reports of contaminated drinking water wells in Dimock, PA. On New Year's Day 2009, a resident's drinking water well exploded, ripping apart an eight by eight foot slab of concrete. The Dimock experience had the potential to become an industry nightmare, perhaps even derailing efforts to drill in New York State. "Certainly, when an operation isn't meeting the regulations laid out by the state, it doesn't reflect well on the industry," Chesapeake's director of corporate development for the company's eastern division told a group of executives at an event in November.

The natural gas industry has had little trouble attracting powerful and influential boosters. It has been championed by oil and gas executive T. Boone Pickens, who happens to own 275,000 shares of Cabot and Warren Buffett, the oracle himself. At the inauguration of the Congressional Natural Gas Caucus in October, Pickens, the keynote speaker, declared, "We are swimming in natural gas." Residents of Dimock, many of whom have sued Cabot for poisoning their water, may take a slightly different view of natural gas's potential. In December, Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection issued a consent order requiring that the company provide clean water or filtration devices to 13 families within a nine-square -mile area. They also slapped them with a $120,000 fine.

More recently, according to the Wall Street Journal, Chesapeake's chief executive, Aubrey McClendon, has been touring the country alongside the Sierra Club's Carl Pope trumpeting the benefits of natural gas. Its biggest selling point is that it burns cleaner than coal and oil, though the impact of extracting it from deep shale formations is highly controversial. It also requires the use of large amounts of diesel fuel to keep compressors and other machinery operating 24/7. Responding to criticism from local affiliates, particularly in New York and Pennsylvania, Pope asked, "Will the 20% of the membership that happens to live in places where drilling is happening be unhappy? I'm sure that's true." So much for grassroots organizing.

In early December I drove through Bradford County, PA and stopped in Towanda, the county seat. The small town of about 3,000 people, located on the Susquehanna River, is humming with activity. The Towanda Motel, on the northern edge of town, has been entirely occupied by Chesapeake employees since April. No Vacancy signs hang from the office window and a security guard keeps watch over the premises. The company's fleet of shiny white pick-ups and SUVs can be seen everywhere, harbingers of what seems to be a very important mission. Nearly everyone I met had leased their land, from the young man who owned the Victorian Charm Inn where I stayed to the woman who worked in the county clerk's office (open late now on Tuesdays and Thursdays to accommodate "abstracters," company reps who comb through deeds going back to the early 19 th century to find out if there might be any obstacles to acquiring mineral rights from local landowners). When I asked the owner of a local diner if things had improved in Towanda since Chesapeake came to town she replied curtly, "Sometimes." Meanwhile, Chesapeake has opened a regional office in what was once an Ames Department Store on the south side of town.

 
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