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Critics question industry funding of WVU Marcellus program

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Critics of a West Virginia University initiative to teach communities about Marcellus Shale drilling say the program is biased because it gets funding from the natural gas industry.

The Sierra Club of West Virginia contends that the program, run by the university's Extension Service, doesn't give participants enough information about the environmental damage caused by drilling.   

The program received funding from three energy companies: Chesapeake, Dominion and EQT. Dominion and Chesapeake gave $50,000 each. EQT contributed $25,000. 

Launched late last year, the informational sessions feature presentations by a WVU geology professor, a natural gas attorney, and representatives of the state Department of Environmental Protection and the West Virginia Water Research Institute at WVU. More sessions are scheduled through May.

Sierra Club Outreach Coordinator Chuck Wyrostok said that the presentations are not inaccurate, but that they leave out certain aspects of Marcellus drilling. He called the program a "dog and pony show" for the industry.

"I think the general consensus is that the information that's being put out is fairly factual," he said. "The problem that we're finding with it is that there's a lot of error by omission, and it doesn't deal with the problems of Marcellus drilling at all."

Last month, the Sierra Club sent out an email to its members, asking them to contact the Extension Service and ask about the funding.

The West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association organized funding for the program and helped train some of the people involved in the information sessions, said Corky DeMarco, the association's executive director.

"We did this simply because we thought it was the right thing to do, to have someone out there answering the everyday questions of people in rural West Virginia," he said.

DeMarco said he doesn't understand why people would criticize the industry funding.

"No good deed goes unpunished," DeMarco said. "If the Sierra Club wants to train people on their way of doing things, or windmills or whatever the hell they want to do, tell them to put up the money." 

If the group doesn't have the money, he said, "Tell them to have a bake sale."

The Marcellus Shale lies underneath parts of West Virginia, New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio. It is one of the world's richest natural gas basins. Marcellus drillers use a controversial practice called hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," where millions of gallons of water are mixed with chemicals and pumped underground to fracture shale deposits.

The Extension Service is WVU's community outreach arm. Spokeswoman Ann Bailey Berry said the service started the Natural Gas Education Program because it had received so many calls from West Virginians who wanted to learn about Marcellus drilling.

They had questions about environmental impacts, leasing their land, and other issues.

"What we've tried to do is bring a pretty diverse group of players together in one room so that they can learn from each other," Berry said.

The gas companies did not review the curriculum for the information sessions, she said.

The Extension Service received many emails from Sierra Club members and plans to move the DEP presentation to the second spot in the 4-hour program, Berry said. Before, that was the last item on the agenda before the question-and-answer session.

The Extension Service modeled its program after one at Pennsylvania State University, Berry said.

Penn State has an extension service that educates communities about gas exploration. It also has the Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research.

The community education programs are funded with public dollars, said Michael Arthur, co-director of the center.

"A number of people here do research which is funded by industry, but that money is not going to our outreach," Arthur said.

Arthur added that "the WVU group has a great reputation."

"If the state isn't forthcoming" with funding, he said, "where are they going to get their money?"

Some people who attended the forums in West Virginia said the sessions were informative, but felt they did not touch on all the aspects of Marcellus drilling.

Fayette County resident Jennifer Boyd, a physician assistant, said she was surprised to see a Merrill Lynch representative there.

"It was presented as informational, and as soon as you walked in the door, you were handed a folder with information from Merrill Lynch about managing your wealth by leasing your land [for gas drilling]," she said.

The packet from the financial firm contains materials titled "Managing Your New Wealth" and "What if you were suddenly wealthy?" as well as a business card for a Merrill Lynch advisor.

Berry of the Extension Service said the programs allow organizations, including the Sierra Club, to distribute literature at the forums.

Phil Raney, a retired NASA scientist and engineering professor, said he thought the program provided good information, but glossed over the risks of natural-gas drilling.

"There certainly was nobody there representing any kind of citizens' interest," the Oak Hill resident said. "Some interests are going to make really big bucks out of [Marcellus drilling]. And the only mention of regulations or safeguards, environmental or otherwise, that I heard from anybody...was, 'Trust us.'"

Spokesmen for Dominion and EQT said that the companies contributed the money because they wanted to help communities understand the issues involved in Marcellus development.

Chesapeake Vice President Scott Rotruck said his company also has given $750,000 to WVU's law school, petroleum engineering and geology programs. Most of that money is for scholarships.

"Everybody was told to not in any way try to influence" any of the programs, including the community outreach forums, said Rotruck, who used to work for WVU. "The public really wants to learn, and the university is a third party that they can turn to for expertise." 

The gas-company funding has covered rental fees for equipment and sites, Berry said. The companies also partially paid for travel and logistics for Extension agents and presenters for the initial meetings, as well as employee trainings. None of the money pays for salaries or for presenters' and Extension employees' time.

So far, the service has spent about $8,000, she said. Most of the funds will help pay for printed materials.

Reach Alison Knezevich at alisonk@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1240.


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