Drillers open ears to communities

| Saturday, Dec. 22, 2012, 7:12 p.m.

Some gas drilling companies that spent years fighting, threatening and suing reluctant municipalities in which they wanted to operate took a new tack in 2012: collaboration.

Employing mostly lawyers and lobbyists before, drillers hired local people to act as liaisons and ramped up communication efforts across the state and in Western Pennsylvania communities, including some of those caught up in fierce disputes. Conflicts included whether local governments can limit drilling in some neighborhoods, environmental questions, and repairs to public roads.

Most municipal officials interviewed now give drilling companies credit for improving communication and responding quickly when problems arise.

“XTO (Energy) has been great to work with,” said Lois Rankin, a first-term supervisor in Jefferson. “Each and every time there's been an issue ... they've come through and complied and fixed it. XTO just seems very willing to work with all the residents.”

Companies including XTO — an Exxon Mobil Corp. subsidiary — EQT Corp., Range Resources Corp. and Consol Energy Inc. intentionally increased emphasis on municipal government relations the past year or two. For example, XTO set up a community advisory board in Butler County this summer, which Rankin joined.

That kind of effort largely was missing in the early years of shale-gas development in Pennsylvania, said Gregory Kallenberg, a documentary filmmaker who toured the state this year for a program Shell Oil Co. sponsored. A divide grew between the industry and the public because people didn't understand the negative impacts that can come from gas-land development, he said.

“And really, I hang a lot of that blame on the way the industry came into the area. 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. “When you have that mutual understanding, things tend to go a lot smoother.”

Range made news this month and late last year by trying to reconcile with township boards with which it butted heads. At the center of several heated disputes, it once threatened to leave Mt. Pleasant in Washington County, and took South Fayette and Cecil to court over land-use laws.

“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.”

Cannon told Cecil officials this month that the company would switch its lawyer working with the township, and that it wants to work less through lawyers. It is trying to schedule a similar meeting with South Fayette.

Skeptical officials in both townships cite several actions and legal maneuvers Range employed that they claim broke trust. The communities are among suburbs southwest of Pittsburgh challenging the state's oil and gas laws — Act 13 — before the state Supreme Court.

The lawsuit is one of several challenges between towns and Range in courts and before the state Public Utility Commission.

One of the state's hottest municipal conflicts ended after three days, said Daniel L. Roupp, supervisor and road master in Cogan House, Lycoming County.

Last December, Roupp, frustrated that Range's truck drivers wouldn't stop using a road that needed multimillion-dollar repair work, cut down trees to block it. That made statewide news. Range sent representatives to township offices the next day and expedited the road repairs to finish within 24 hours, Roupp said.

“We have several energy companies that we work with and it's amazing how different they are,” he said. “Some are very proactive ... and some are reactive, where they come in and figure they'll do everything they can until they've pushed us to the limit. Then once we start screaming at them, they get around to repairing what they damaged.

“(Range Resources) just needed an attitude adjustment, I guess,” he added, noting company officials since have been easy to work with.

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, London, advised companies to acknowledge that communities have legitimate grievances, in order to begin to repair a “crippling trust deficit.”

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

Communication is key, municipal and industry officials said.

At EQT, Downtown, Nathanial Manchin started in state government relations and gradually moved solely to community relations. This summer, his staff added three advisers, people hired from the areas in which the company is working, to act as liaisons to the towns.

They take complaints and requests from people, and attend government meetings to give status updates on the company's work and plans, Manchin said.

“It really builds a much more cohesive relationship,” he said. “A returned phone call goes a long way.”

Timothy Puko is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7991 or tpuko@tribweb.com.

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