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Hearing was 'ban fracking now!' vs. 'drill, baby, drill!'

Natural gas drilling opponents urged a Department of Energy panel that met Monday night in gas-rich Washington County to recommend a ban on hydraulic shale fracturing.

But the newly formed Natural Gas Subcommittee was not there to consider a ban.

Instead, its members asked the public for recommendations it could offer to federal regulators that would ensure Marcellus shale gas extraction in Pennsylvania won't contaminate air or drinking water.

"It's important for the country, but it's also important that it be done properly and that it be done safely," said Chairman John Deutch, a chemist and board member of Cheniere Energy Inc., which plans to export natural gas.

Protesters who chanted, "Save Pennsylvania, ban fracking now," were met with boos and shouts of "drill, baby, drill" from drilling supporters who sat shoulder to shoulder with opponents in a Washington & Jefferson College auditorium packed with hundreds of people toting pro- and anti-drilling signs.

More than 90 people signed up to speak to the subcommittee. Each was given two minutes.

Many drilling opponents questioned the energy industry ties of the seven members of the panel, which was created with the intention of including the gas drilling industry.

"Chemicals are being found in residents' blood that have no safe levels," said Mel Packer of Point Breeze, an environmentalist with Marcellus Protest, an anti-drilling group. "If you're honest and ethical human beings, you'll resign."

Energy Secretary Steven Chu created the subcommittee on May 5 in response to President Obama's call "to improve the safety of shale gas development" as part of the president's "Blueprint for a Secure Energy Future."

"This is a sham," said Josh Fox, who made the 2010 documentary film "Gasland." "This is not democracy. This is you using this forum to justify what you've already stated."

Drilling proponents repeatedly told the committee that no evidence has shown fracking to be harmful to public health.

Gary Slagel, government affairs director for Consol Energy Inc., said his industry "fully supports a scientific inquiry" into fracking.

"Too much of the information being circulated as fact is misinformation," he said.

Larry Watkins told the board that he has worked to drill for natural gas in seven states. Each has benefited from jobs and tax revenue created by the industry.

"Saying 'no' to gas means saying 'yes' to coal and oil," Watkins said.

Controversy erupted days before the meeting when environmental activists in Washington County complained that an oil industry group offered free meals, hotel rooms and airfare to drilling supporters from 18 counties in northeast Pennsylvania and southern New York who agreed to attend the meeting.

Organizers of the Northeast Marcellus Initiative, supported by the Independent Petroleum Association of America, said their advocates deserved to be heard.

Those who spoke in favor of drilling outnumbered those against it at the meeting.

It was the subcommittee's second public meeting but its first in Pennsylvania, which has about 3,200 Marcellus shale gas wells.

Some researchers believe the Marcellus shale formation, about a mile beneath the surface, could contain about 500 trillion cubic feet of gas, enough to satisfy U.S. demand for decades.

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