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Anti-drilling activists change tactics, tone

| Monday, Oct. 7, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

For years, activists warned that fracking could have disastrous consequences — ruined water and air, sickened people and animals, a ceaseless parade of truck traffic.

Now some critics are doing what was once unthinkable: working with the industry. Some are signing lucrative gas leases and speaking about the environmental benefits of gas.

In one northeastern Pennsylvania village that became a global flashpoint in the debate over fracking, the switch has raised more than a few eyebrows.

A few weeks ago, Victoria Switzer and other activists from Dimock endorsed a candidate for governor who supports natural gas production from gigantic reserves such as the Marcellus shale, albeit with more regulation and new taxes. Dimock was the centerpiece of “Gasland,” a documentary that galvanized opposition to fracking, and Switzer was featured in this summer's “Gasland Part II,” which aired on HBO.

“We had to work with the industry. There is no magic wand to make this go away,” said Switzer. “Tunnel vision isn't good. Realism is good.”

For Switzer, the endorsement was a nod to reality; for some of her onetime allies, a betrayal. Either way, it was a sign that anti-drilling activism is evolving, with some opponents shifting tactics to reflect that shale gas is likely here to stay.

Plenty of anti-drilling activists still want nothing to do with the industry and continue to call for a ban on fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, the technique that drillers use to siphon gas from shale deposits more than a mile underground.

Pennsylvania residents concerned about drilling no longer have the luxury of simply calling for a ban, Switzer said — not with the Pennsylvania and West Virginia portions of the Marcellus already yielding more than $10 billion worth of gas annually, making it the nation's most prolific gas field.

Robert Donnan of Peters was an outspoken critic of drilling in general and Range Resources, the company that sunk the first Marcellus well in 2004, in particular. In February, he leased his land to Range, according to public documents obtained by The Associated Press.

Donnan didn't respond to requests for comment.

One of Donnan's cousins said family members felt they had little real choice, considering their 296-acre property is already surrounded by drilling.

“The choice is either sign the lease and have some control, or don't sign and have no control” over what happens in the area, said Geoffrey Smith, adding the family will still keep an eye on everything the drillers do.

Donnan is still speaking out. He denounced drilling at a public forum in Pittsburgh — though without telling the audience he had signed a lease.

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