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The Associated Press June 21, 2011, 3:04PM ET

Gas industry cranks up PR push on W.Va. drilling

As the rhetoric heats up over natural gas drilling in West Virginia's portion of the Marcellus shale field and opposition to the unconventional deep wells grows, the industry is cranking up the public relations machine.

At a conference in Morgantown on Tuesday, the Independent Oil and Gas Association of West Virginia touted its 4-week-old "Just Beneath the Surface" campaign and website.

President Mike McCown said it's designed to provide factual information to anti-drilling groups he referred to as "wing nut organizations ... friends of the whatever" -- groups that he argues should be supporting one of the state's most promising economic engines.

Corky DeMarco, executive director of the West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association, struck a more measured tone, saying industry can no longer afford to ignore people who fear its operations. Instead, he said, it must understand their concerns, educate them and provide transparency about drilling operations

"The public doesn't want to necessarily believe what you're saying, and that's a mission we've got to take on," DeMarco said. "We've got to convince them, through our actions and the way we do things, that we have nothing to hide."

Industry leaders also encouraged people to turn out for a pro-drilling rally at the Monongalia County Courthouse ahead of an important Tuesday night vote.

Morgantown City Council is considering an ordinance to ban horizontal, deep wells within city limits and up to 1 mile beyond. Conventional drilling would be allowed only under a city permit.

"We're one of the few growing industries in this state," McCown said, "and it's a shame, I think, that cities like Morgantown are having the debate they're having tonight."

The mile-deep Marcellus formation stretches deep beneath West Virginia and several other nearby states. McCown said West Virginia alone has an estimated 100 trillion cubic feet of reserves.

He touted the economic benefits the rapidly growing industry has already brought the state, including $71 million in severance taxes and $106 million in property taxes in 2010. Drilling, pipeline and other related companies are directly or indirectly responsible for employing some 35,000 West Virginians, he said.

Yet the League of Women Voters, the West Virginia Council of Churches, nearly two dozen legislators and a variety of environmental groups have opposed or raised concerns about drilling.

Tapping the Marcellus reserves requires unconventional technology, horizontal drilling, as well as hydraulic fracturing. Drillers pump high volumes of water mixed with chemicals and sand into wells to crack the rock, creating fissures that release the gas.

Industry insists the practice is safe, but opponents fear the possibility of water contamination as well as air pollution, road destruction and other problems.

Morgantown City Council drafted its ordinance as public outrage swelled over a Marcellus well along the Monongahela River, within a mile of the city's water supply.

Charleston-based Northeast Natural Energy is sinking two wells on a high-profile, hillside site in the Morgantown Industrial Park. Any spills from that site could potentially enter the Monongahela River about 1,500 feet upstream from a drinking water intake.

City residents have protested the project, but Northeast vice president Brett Loflin says the company is committed to environmentally sound operations. It followed the Department of Environmental Protection's rules in obtaining permits, he said, then accepted tighter restrictions to protect the river after the public protests.

Morgantown is the second West Virginia city to attempt a ban on drilling and fracking within a mile of its municipal boundaries. Wellsburg City Council passed a similar ordinance last month, citing concerns about the city's drinking water supply.

Attorney Al Sebok said he's already been contacted by a resident who plans to challenge the city's ordinance in court if it passes. Northeast is operating under a validly issued permit and valid state law, he said, and those prohibit the city from interfering.

No city can "arbitrarily and capriciously" declare such an operation a public nuisance or try to regulate it as one, he argued. Science, not emotion, should drive regulation, Sebok said.

Westover, across the Monongahela from Morgantown, is also considering an ordinance to bar drilling within city limits. It would require drillers to present data proving the operations won't harm residents.

For generations, DeMarco said, the gas industry shunned publicity.

"Now, we have an instance where the public is aware of what we're doing," he said.

Opposition is driven by "the fear of the unknown," he said, "and we weren't doing a very daggone good job of letting them know what we were doing."

Road damage, heavy truck traffic and other facets of the drilling industry have disrupted the quality of life for many rural residents, DeMarco acknowledged, "and now everybody's looking at us."

"If you live on a rural West Virginia road and you've now got potholes as deep as this tabletop, life is not so good for you," he said. "This industry has a bright future ... but we've got to get the thing done right."

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