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Why Is Obama Cuddling Up to Karl Rove and His Gas Drilling Friends?

Rove pronounced the movement for clean energy dead at a natural gas drilling conference. But a massive protest outside reveals just the opposite.

In the days following Tuesday's election, President Obama's first peace offering to hardliners across the aisle was telling: "We've got, I think, broad agreement that we've got terrific natural gas resources in this country," he said. At the same time he was giving the thumbs-up for natural gas drilling, Karl Rove was doing the same, appearing as the keynote speaker at Pittsburgh's David Lawrence Convention Center for the DUG (Developing Unconventional Gas) East Coast conference on hydraulic fracturing for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale.

The Marcellus Shale is a rock formation with natural gas reserves that lies under parts of New York, West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania, where energy gas companies have been using a controversial technique called hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) to extract gas. The practice has come under intense scrutiny recently after reports of water contamination and other environmental violations by gas drilling companies. This didn't stop some 2,200 energy executives gathered at the three-day conference focused on the technology, finances, and legal challenges of fracking in the largest of the nation's methane-rich shale formations. DUG, a conference developed by Hart Energy, an information and publishing arm of the energy industry, runs yearly conferences, last year adding DUG East as the controversial technology moved eastward from Texas and the Rockies to Appalachia's Marcellus Shale.

Another major industry meeting on the Marcellus, the so-called "landmark summit" sponsored by the Marcellus Shale Coalition, a group of major industry players, was to take place on October 1, but was canceled. In August, a few days after Tom Ridge came on board as MSC's public face and adviser, Marcellus Protest, a Western Pennsylvania grassroots organizing and information sharing forum, had planned to protest the meeting where Ridge, in his first high-profile appearance for MSC, was to be the keynote speaker. An MSC spokesperson told AlterNet at the time that protests had nothing "whatsoever" to do with the cancellation, citing "scheduling issues," in particular, the upcoming DUG. But Marcellus Protest's Mel Packer told AlterNet he suspected the politically savvy Ridge had advised canceling the summit to stem the bad publicity for MSC of a bunch of "really angry people." In August Packer told AlterNet that his Marcellus Protest would bring even more angry people to DUG. And by November, after months of well and pipeline catastrophes, and more reports of contaminated water and air, and leases signed within the Pittsburgh city limits, he made good on his promise.

On Wednesday, November 3, the main day of DUG programming, an estimated 500-800 people marched across the Rachel Carson bridge through downtown Pittsburgh, surrounding the convention center for a rally. As they crossed the historic bridge, they shouted "No fracking way," "Clean air, clean water," and "It used to be Frick and now it's Frack," (referring to Pennsylvania's coal and steel robber baron Henry Clay Frick). They played trombones and drums, carried 7-foot-high puppets, and held homemade signs, the most dramatic being a 12-foot-square banner reading, "The people have a constitutional right to clean air, pure water, and the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment -- Article 1, Section 27 PA Constitution."

Interestingly, Ridge himself had quoted Article 1 in August at his first talk as the voice of MSC. His informal, conciliatory speech emphasized preserving the environment while developing jobs and revenue through fracking. Ridge may have advised canceling the "summit," but MSC may have been happy to cancel, wanting more firepower in keynote addresses promoting Marcellus drilling. To date, the "moderate" Ridge has not made any high-profile appearances for MSC. Instead, on Wednesday, the keynote was given by Rove, suggesting that the fracking industry is digging in at the same time public objection to the radical technology grows into what some see as a mass movement.