By Michael Rubinkaum
PHILADELPHIA -- Gov. Tom Corbett on Thursday attacked anti-drilling activists as the "unreasoning opposition" who accept the nation can land a space vehicle on Mars but don't believe energy companies can safely harvest gas a mile under the earth's surface.
Corbett, speaking Thursday at a Marcellus Shale industry conference in Philadelphia, touted the economic benefits of shale-gas development and hailed drillers as the "tip of the spear" of a new industrial revolution.
"After all the predictions of disaster and the fearful warnings from people with no understanding of the industry, Pennsylvania is reaping a bounty," said the Republican governor.
As Corbett spoke, a few hundred anti-drilling activists protested outside the Pennsylvania Convention Center. Opponents portray shale-gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing -- the technique that's allowed drillers to extract natural gas from shale deposits deep underground -- as bad for the environment and a danger to public health.
"Please open your eyes. We're destroying the precious resources that God has provided us with to sustain life," said protester Tammy Manning, of Franklin Forks, Pa., who has filed a lawsuit alleging a gas driller contaminated her water well. The driller denies responsibility.
The second annual Shale Gas Insight conference drew about 1,600 people at a time of tremendous change for the drilling industry. Companies are shifting rigs to drill for natural gas liquids and oil in the face of historically low natural gas prices. They're adjusting to a major overhaul of state drilling regulations and recently paid a first-ever state "impact fee" of more than $200 million.
And they are still struggling to gain wide public acceptance.
Addressing the conference, XTO Energy President Jack Williams acknowledged that "some Americans continue to demonstrate a high level of concern about the impact of shale development activity on their communities and the environment. ... Our industry must take steps to strengthen public confidence."
Still, Williams hailed a "golden age of gas" and said it is spurring a revival of U.S. manufacturing.
In Pennsylvania, Shell Oil Co. has proposed a multibillion-dollar petrochemical plant in western Pennsylvania that, with the help of state tax credits, would convert the bountiful Marcellus gas into more profitable chemicals such as ethylene, which is used to make plastics, tires, antifreeze and other products. In Philadelphia, a Sunoco oil refinery destined for closure will instead remain open and expand its use of shale gas.
"Marcellus has reached into some very old corners of our economy and our state and brought them back to life," Corbett said.
His environmental secretary, Michael Krancer, later took part in a panel discussion on natural gas and the presidential race. Playing the role of surrogate for GOP nominee Mitt Romney, Krancer attacked President Obama's energy policy as "nothing but what's above the ground, or wind and solar above all" while touting Romney's energy plan.
Krancer, a harsh critic of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, also denounced his federal counterparts as "rogue and out-of-control."
Krancer's spokeswoman said he took a personal day and paid his own way to the event.
Kathleen McGinty, who led Pennsylvania's environmental agency under Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell, was Obama's surrogate and said the president favors an "all of the above" energy policy.