Gas group CEO: Industry must communicate with adversaries

Posted June 15, 2012

By Michael Bradwell Business editor

With America's recent ascent as the world's No. 1 producer of natural gas, it would appear that Regina Hopper's job would be an easy one.

In November 2009, Hopper was named president and chief executive officer of the newly created America's Natural Gas Alliance, which represents 30 of North America's largest independent natural gas exploration and production companies, which include those working in the unconventional shale plays that have produced a surplus of natural gas over the past few years.

But on Thursday, Hopper told members of the Washington County Chamber of Commerce that her mission is not just to tout the benefits of abundant natural gas, such as security, energy independence and affordability, but also to have a dialogue with the gas industry's adversaries.

According to Hopper, shaping that message has much to do with Pennsylvania's experience in the Marcellus Shale.

On Wednesday, there were reports that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is considering allowing limited hydraulic fracturing in towns along New York's southern border that want it.

While the Cuomo administration hasn't provided a timetable for its final decision, Hopper said ANGA's dialogue with the state that has a fracking ban has been difficult because of a communications disconnect.

"New York is the only state where we're not quite sure how to message because we're not quite sure who's messaging them," she said, noting that when her group asks residents who oppose fracking where they're getting information, they claim it's not coming from neighbors or scientists, but they are simply opposed to fracking.

For that reason, Hopper added, people's perceptions about the pros and cons of producing gas from unconventional shale plays are shaped by what happens in Pennsylvania, and particularly in Washington County, which has become an epicenter for extracting gas from the Marcellus Shale.

"You are ground zero," she told the group of about 200 people during a luncheon at the Hilton Garden Inn in Southpointe. "You had the first Marcellus well, and the first horizontal well was drilled here."

Noting that there are 22 other states where some form of unconventional shale gas exists, Hopper said, "Every time we get a call from the 22 states, they ask about Pennsylvania."

She said even other countries with shale gas production potential call asking how Pennsylvania has handled environmental and safety concerns, workforce development and even how it has responded to films like "Gasland," which portrayed gas drilling and fracking in the most negative way.

"People's fears and concerns are real," she acknowledged, adding that for ANGA, the challenge is to talk to people rationally about how they can minimize risks while maximizing benefits.

"We look to Pennsylvania to take good stories across the border, but also to Arkansas, Colorado, Kentucky" and other states that have shale formations that can produce natural gas, she said.

The good news for ANGA's lobbying efforts, she said, is that Washington, D.C., now recognizes the importance of natural gas as a major player in America's energy offerings.

On Wednesday, ANGA released a study it commissioned from IHS Global Insights on the impact unconventional gas development is having in state economies. For Pennsylvania, it noted that in 2010, the state saw 57,000 direct and indirect jobs created by developments in the Marcellus and from coalbed methane gas production. That number was well below that from the state Department of Labor & Industry, which found that by the end of the third quarter of 2010, there were nearly 140,000 jobs created by the industry, while a Penn State study pegged the number at about 90,000 jobs.

Hopper and other ANGA officials said the lower number was a result of different methodologies, noting that the estimate by IHS was intentionally conservative. IHS also projected that the state should see 111,000 jobs created by unconventional gas development by 2015, and 270,000 jobs created by 2035.

An IHS spokesman who worked on the study did not return a call seeking information about how the study was conducted.