The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

World, nation, state

December 29, 2012

Gas drilling companies work on relations

PITTSBURGH — Some gas drilling companies that spent years fighting, threatening and suing reluctant communities took a new tack in 2012: collaboration.

Some drillers in Pennsylvania have hired local residents to act as liaisons and ramped up communication efforts, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported Friday. Most municipal officials the newspaper interviewed now give drillers credit for improving communication and responding quickly when problems arise.

For example, XTO Energy — an Exxon Mobil Corp. subsidiary — set up a community advisory board in Butler County, about 30 miles north of Pittsburgh.

“XTO (Energy) has been great to work with,” said Lois Rankin, a supervisor in Jefferson. “Each and every time there’s been an issue ... they’ve come through and complied and fixed it.”

That kind of effort was largely missing in the early years of shale gas development in Pennsylvania, said Gregory Kallenberg, a filmmaker who toured the state this year for a program Shell Oil Co. sponsored.

“They were coming into the area ... without the attention they should give to communication and community relations that they seem to have now,” Kallenberg said by phone from his office in Louisiana.

A boom in drilling has taken place in parts of the Marcellus Shale, which lies under Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Maryland and New York. The procedure called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has made it possible to tap into deep reserves of oil and gas. But fracking has raised concerns about pollution, since large volumes of water, along with sand and hazardous chemicals, are injected underground to break rock apart and free the oil and gas.   

The industry and many federal and state officials say the practice is safe when done properly, but environmental groups and some scientists say there hasn’t been enough research on possible pollution issues.

Some of the impetus to change comes from within the industry.

In a strategy paper on combatting the anti-fracking movement, analyst Jonathan Wood of Control Risks, a global consulting company, advised drillers to acknowledge that communities have legitimate grievances, in order to begin to repair a “crippling trust deficit.”

Wood advised, among other things, openness, voluntary disclosure and “meaningful consultations” with communities, rather than “didactic information sessions to market the presumed benefits of drilling.”

Range Resources, a driller based in Fort Worth, Texas, has been at the center of several heated disputes.

“We’re probably more active listeners now, so we’re probably better able to hone in on what local governments need from us,” said Jim Cannon, whose job at Range focuses on local government relations. “A couple years ago, maybe we weren’t as sensitive to it. ... Now we recognize how vital it really is.”

Some officials note that drilling companies vary widely in how they do business.

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