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. 

"Poor fracking execs" -- that was the joke that made its way among the high-spirited protesters who considered themselves blessed with a perfect sunny fall day while the conference attendees were stuck inside in viewless rooms with recycled air, boring speakers and a smirking Rove, whose Crossroads Grassroots group, through contributions of hundreds of thousands of dollars, had just handed the Pennsylvania Senate and gubernatorial seat to drill-now Republicans.

Inside, governor-elect Tom Corbett was the hero of the day. Rich Weber, president of Appalachia-based Atlas Energy said, "Operators in Pennsylvania will find thoughtful leadership at the state capital ... With Corbett, I know we're going to get it right." Atlas is among the companies that has gotten much wrong in their Marcellus drilling, racking up 13 violations and an $85,000 fine from Pennsylvania's DEP for, among other things, dumping industrial waste, including diesel fuel and production fluids, onto the ground at seven of the 13 well sites, not to mention the large fire at Atlas drill site in Hopewell Township PA in March, when toxic-ridden fracking waste burst into flame.

The consensus of the day was that the Marcellus is the most important shale in the country and Pennsylvania is the most important part of the Marcellus.  Others, like John Pinkerton, President and CEO of Range Resources, who announced in October it would be selling off most of its Barnett Shale holdings in Texas to invest in the Marcellus, talked about the new frontier of the Marcellus. Tom Sherman, an analyst for Bentek LLC, an energy industry analysis firm, said, of Marcellus development, "It's not that we don't think West Virginia and New York are important. The point is that Pennsylvania's production and acreage is prolific and ample enough to drive the forecast on its own, regardless of what happens in West Virginia and New York."

Some sessions dealt with technology ("Visualizing the Many Black Shales and Tight Sand Reservoirs of Appalachia," "Regional Petrophysical Analysis of the Marcellus Shale") but most dealt with the financials, with speakers giving talks titled "Appalachian Gas Price Premiums," "Market Effects of the Marcellus" and "The Economic Impacts of the Marcellus Shale." All in all, fracking was praised as the biggest boom for Pennsylvania since steel. 

In a speech called "Lessons Learned," David Porges, president and CEO of Pittsburgh-based EQT Corp., addressed the industry's poor reputation. The problem was just a few "bad actors," but the industry was made up of "good guys" who cared about the environment, he said. They just had to show it more through more transparency such as disclosure of fracking chemicals. EQT, however, has yet to agree to chemical disclosure. Only one session, a two-hour "Roundtable of Stakeholders" included an environmentalist (from Trout International), but the session was dominated by industry heavies and moderated by Leslie Haines, editor-in-chief of Oil and Gas Investor and Kathryn Klaber, president and executive director of the Marcellus Shale Coalition.

Rove's luncheon keynote reflected the bold self-congratulation of the event. Flushed with victories of his pro-drilling candidates in Pennsylvania, he announced that the election meant America will get it "right" as far as energy and climate legislation. "They sure as heck won't be able to pass it," he said referring to climate-change legislation. In a thoughtless but perhaps revealing choice of words, he announced, "Climate's gone." The Frac Act in the Senate, which would require more regulation and disclosure of chemicals, was history too, according to Rove. "The Waxman-Markey legislation will be dropped ...You can bet on Markey's special committee being disbanded ... we're back to a period of sensible regulations."

Rove and Obama vs. We the People

As speakers inside praised deregulation, financial outcomes, and hailed fracking's friends from Pennsylvania in the Senate and State House, protesters outside saw a very different world. The beautiful day seemed the perfect scene for their demands for clean air and water. In downtown Pittsburgh at lunchtime, people stopped to talk with protesters and to watch the lively speakers and musicians explain the practices of the under-regulated and perilous method of extracting methane. The gas industry has begun drilling 10 miles from Pittsburgh, and leasing land within the city limits, and some onlookers were worried enough to take a sign.

A lineup of fine musicians kept up the spirit of the day. Punk musician Justin Sane sang "Gasland Terror," a song he wrote for the occasion, which likens fracking to a terrorist attack of the homeland. And other singers offered inspiring songs, including Mike Stout, Kelly Burgos, Laura Daniels and the Newlanders' Gerard Rohlf.

Speaker after speaker spoke of the strong spirit of the crowd and how a mass movement was beginning, with more and more people troubled by stories or their own experiences with drilling. Doug Shields, a Pittsburgh city councilman, said Pittsburgh was very close to achieving victory in an upcoming vote on a proposal to ban drilling within the city limits. Already at the edge of the city, drilling is going day and night next to a popular shopping mall and hotel.

Local farmers Ron Gullah and Stephen Cleghhorn spoke poignantly of their land being destroyed by water contaminated from fracking. "This is a revolution!" said Loretta Weir, a Pittsburgh resident, and necessary because the gas companies operate "outside the law." Gloria Forouzan, a Marcellus Protester organizer, told AlterNet she was sure a mass movement was in the making. Every day she has been getting calls from people across the country. On Wednesday Wilkes-Barre ran its own protest, and people on the street who had never heard of fracking promised to travel out to Luzerne Community College to see a free showing of the documentary Gasland. Residents of Little Rock and Dallas held their own protests, too, on November 3 and in Cherry Valley, NY a protest will be held on Nov 11. "People are taking heart in what others are doing," Forouzan said.

Josh Fox, director of Gasland, agreed that a huge movement to put a hold on fracking was building. He told a story about a family in a fracking area whose kids suffer constant nosebleeds from toxins linked to fracking. "We are here for that family," he said. Taking out his cell phone, he called governor-elect Tom Corbett's office. He told the woman who answered the phone that he had a message for Mr. Corbett: "We the people of Pennsylvania, joined by our allies, demand an end to hydro-fracking gas drilling." He held his phone out to the crowd, which chanted, "No fracking way!" Then Fox thanked the woman for her time, and ended the call.

Go Forth and Organize

President Obama might be feeling friendly to fracking. As reported by Mike Soroghan of Greenwire, fracking industry spokesmen found Obama's statements at his November 3rd press conference are consistent with positions of his State Department, which is looking to push the technology globall,y and the Energy Department also puts a lot of stock in shale gas production.

But even in government, all is not lost. Proposition 23, an effort to roll back California's climate law, was overwhelmingly defeated with 61.4 percent of the vote. The federal climate bill, however inadequate, might not be dead according to Matthew Garrington, advocate for the group Environment Colorado. "Of the House members who voted for the American Clean Energy and Security Act [climate bill], 81 percent survived. Of those who voted no, 61 percent lost. It'll be hard for someone to credibly make the case that yesterday's election was a referendum on that vote," he said.

Candidate Corbett received $835,720 from the natural gas industry, seven times more than any other candidate in the race for governor, according to the watchdog group, MarcellusMoney.org. Rove's Crossroads spent over $100,000 to defeat the pro-moratorium New York Congressman Maurice Hinchey, who kept his seat and can be counted on to work for disclosure and regulation of fracking. On Wednesday Pittsburgh protesters shouted loud and clear to the governor-elect, "No fracking way." On Thursday, many of the protesters attended the city council meeting to support the ban on drilling within Pittsburgh's city limits. "We're seeing activity for drilling moratoriums all across the country" Mel Packer said, "some days in the street, some days in government offices."

In Pittsburgh they called the November 3protest "No Fracking Way." Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania joined in and called it the First National Day of Protest against Gas Fracking, and protesters in Flower Mound, Texas called their protest the First World Protest Against Shale Gas Fracking. Whatever you call it, November 3 was an important day in the making of the mass movement activists are betting on to stop unregulated and unhealthful hydro-fracking by energy companies that are advancing eastward across the nation and planning to dig in and stay. With Karl Rove and Barack Obama finding common ground in shale drilling, the battle could be harder than evert. But all those at the November 3rd rally seemed undaunted and ready, as the final speaker implored, to “go forth and organize.”

Reporting for this story assisted by Gloria Forouzan and Mel Packer in Pittsburgh; Michelle Thomas in Wilkes-Barre; and Virginia Simonson, Sue Ann Lorig and Jim Wall in the Dallas area.

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Nora Eisenberg is the director of the City University of New York's fellowship program for emerging scholars. Her short stories, essays and reviews have appeared in such places as the Partisan Review, Village Voice, the Los Angeles Times and Tikkun. Her most recent novel, When You Come Home (Curbstone, 2009), explores the the 1991 Gulf War and Gulf War illness.