The Cumberland Times-News
Fri Mar 04, 2011, 08:01 AM EST
FROSTBURG — The conversation almost stayed civil Wednesday night.
About 150 people gathered at the Palace Theatre to hear two panelists discuss the pros and cons of drilling for natural gas in Western Maryland’s portion of the Marcellus shale.
Gas industry representative Gregory Wrightstone explained why he thinks drilling is desireable, emphasizing the potential economic benefits the region stands to gain.
Filmmaker Josh Fox, whose Oscar-nominated movie, “Gasland,” documents serious public health and environmental problems associated with the process of extracting gas from the earth, explained why he thinks drilling must stop.
For almost two hours, the exchange was strained, but respectful.
Then Wrightson, confronted by a Garrett County resident who doesn’t want to see the area spoiled by industrialization, asked a rhetorical question.
“You’re right about this — it will change Garrett County,” said Wrightstone, director of geology for Texas Keystone, Inc., of Pittsburgh. “I remember when my grandfather subdivided his farm. It was bittersweet to see a bunch of houses going up. But he benefited from that. Garrett County’s going to have to make that decision ...
“Are you suggesting that we ban drilling in Garrett County?” Wrightson asked.
The audience erupted.
“Yes!” a majority shouted, applauding fervently. The moderator, struggling to restore order, reminded the crowd of its tacit promise to remain “civil” during the panel.
Then Fox, who has asked Congress for a nationwide moratorium on drilling until safety issues have been addressed, interrupted.
“I gotta say something here — there’s nothing uncivil about standing up for your rights,” Fox said. “I’m sorry, that is not uncivil. That is an expression of actual political will. It’s not against the rules to be able to say, ‘No, I don’t want this here.’”
The outbursts Wednesday night underscored the intense emotions the issue is arousing here and across the region, as gas companies approach landowners for leases permitting them to drill.
The Marcellus shale, a black shale formation that extends deep underground from Ohio and West Virginia, northeast into Maryland, Pennsylvania and New York, is believed to hold vast natural gas deposits. Using a technologically advanced process called hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” gas companies have been extracting natural gas from wells in Pennsylvania and New York in recent years.
To date, no permits for drilling have been issued in Allegany County; gas companies have applied for two permits in Garrett County, state environmental officials have said.
Over the last year or so, events to educate the public here about natural gas drilling have drawn large crowds. In February, about 100 people attended a discussion at the Allegany County Fairgrounds; in January, an estimated 300 gathered at a hall in Oakland for a four-hour public hearing on the topic.
Wednesday’s panel discussion was part of the Maryland Humanities Council’s new initiative, “Practicing Democracy: Seeking Common Ground,” an effort to provide opportunities for “people with divergent opinions and perspectives to engage in respectful and effective civic dialogue.”
Facilitators showed clips from Fox’s “Gasland” and a gas industry-produced film called “Shale Gas and America’s Future” to set up opposing perspectives on drilling’s benefits and dangers.
Wrightstone, who has been involved with natural gas drilling for more than 30 years, including many wells in the region, called the Marcellus shale a “great gift” and an “incredible resource” that can boost local economies and decrease America’s dependence on foreign oil.
The total value of the natural gas in Allegany County’s Marcellus shale could be close to $15.72 billion, with the average well earning $65,000 to $524,000 yearly, University of Maryland Extension staff have said.
Though he claimed that much of Fox’s data showing ground water contamination was flawed, Wrightstone admitted that drilling can cause environmental problems.
“Anything you do on the surface can degrade the fresh water,” he said. “What’s the industry that pollutes fresh water the most in Maryland? I think we can all agree it’s farming,” said Wrightstone, who said he grew up on a farm.
“What industry has the highest mortality rate? Farming. Is anybody out there trying to get a moratorium on farming? No. We’re doing this in an environmentally safe manner, and hydrofracturing is definitely not harming ground water. ... Are there going to be incidences out there sometimes? Absolutely. But it’s an incredible natural resource that we need to develop safely.”
Fox, who began investigating the gas industry after a company offered to lease some of his Pennsylvania land for a well, said there aren’t enough government regulations in place to monitor the industry. He encouraged local residents to be “detectives” and do their own investigating before deciding whether they think drilling should take place.
“What my film is calling for is an investigation before any more of this is to occur,” said Fox, who travels the country talking about the issue. “Because it is putting people at risk.”
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