The chief executive of one of the top U.S. natural gas producers delivered a blistering rebuke of critics of shale gas drilling on Wednesday, calling them fear-mongering extremists who want Americans to live in a world where "it's cold, it's dark and we're all hungry."
Speaking at an industry conference in Philadelphia, Chesapeake Energy Corp. CEO Aubrey McClendon said that gas drilling has been done safely for decades using a process called hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking."
Environmental activists say that fracking and the drilling boom it's created has led to polluted air and tainted groundwater and has made people sick. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is studying the issue.
McClendon accused critics of distorting the facts. He asserted there have been only a few dozen cases of methane migration into well-water supplies in northeastern Pennsylvania, all of them unrelated to fracking, and that residents were merely inconvenienced.
"Looking back, was anybody hurt? Was there any permanent or even temporary environmental damage? No, no and no. Some folks were inconvenienced, for sure, and for that we're deeply sorry," McClendon said. But he said the industry's benefits _ including lower home-heating bills, tens of thousands of new jobs, and millions of dollars of landowner wealth _ more than outweigh the isolated cases of contamination.
He also said that new well-casing standards in Pennsylvania have largely eliminated the methane problem.
"Problem identified, problem solved. That's how we do it in the natural gas industry," said McClendon.
In fact, some residents with contaminated water wells have been forced to get their water delivered for months or years, and say their home values have been destroyed. Last month, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection announced that it was investigating a fresh case of methane contamination.
McClendon, who met with reporters after his speech, said in response to a question from The Associated Press that he wasn't minimizing the problems, just trying to put them into context. He said 30 percent of the water wells that Chesapeake tests before it drills in an area already contain methane.
"We moved into an area that hadn't seen a lot of drilling, that had pretty unusual surface geology," he said. "We had some problems in the beginning. We think we've got them fixed."
The Marcellus is a vast rock formation beneath Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, New York and portions of other states that's believed to contain one of the biggest deposits of natural gas in the world. Nearly 4,000 wells have been drilled in Pennsylvania over the past few years, with tens of thousands more planned.
To reach the gas, drillers combine horizontal drilling with fracking, a technique in which millions of gallons of water, along with sand and chemical additives, are injected at high pressure to crack open gas-bearing rock.
Opponents say fracking and shale gas drilling in general have led to polluted air and water and made people sick. Several hundred activists and homeowners packed the sidewalks outside the industry conference Wednesday and called for a moratorium on drilling.
In his speech, McClendon blasted organizers and participants of the anti-drilling rally.
"Remind me: What value have the protesters outside created? What jobs have they created? You know the answer and so do I," he said. "So it's time that we contrast what we do for a living with what they do for a living."
He said the opponents' goal is to shut down gas drilling altogether.
"What a glorious vision of the future: It's cold, it's dark and we're all hungry," said McClendon, who co-founded Oklahoma City-based Chesapeake, the most active gas driller in the Marcellus Shale and nationwide. "I have no interest in turning the clock back to the dark ages like our opponents do."
Protester Stephen Cleghorn, who runs an organic farm in Reynoldsville, in western Pennsylvania, said outside the convention center that he doesn't believe industry assurances.
"Don't let anybody tell you it's responsible drilling," he said.
Energy executives opened the conference earlier Wednesday by advocating a national energy policy in which natural gas plays a leading role, citing its domestic abundance and cleaner-burning characteristics.
Former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, who has been an industry consultant, said that gas extracted from the nation's vast shale deposits can help release the U.S. "from the vice grip of our dependence on foreign oil." He asserted that shale gas taken from the ground by fracking leaves the lightest environmental footprint of any fossil fuel.
"We need to make sure that natural gas doesn't get squeezed on the margins ... by some phony hysteria about its environmental sustainability," he said.
With drilling opponents questioning the safety of fracking and frequent media reports about alleged water-well contamination and other drilling mishaps, industry officials acknowledged they face a public relations challenge. One after the other, they said the solution is more transparency about their operations and aggressive messaging that casts natural gas as a cleaner-burning, homegrown source of energy and a jobs creator.
"Let's be honest: As an industry, we're often measured by our least diligent operators," said Dave McCurdy, head of the American Gas Association. "That is what gets the press' attention or the regulators' attention. So we have to raise everyone in this process."
Associated Press writer Patrick Walters contributed to this story.