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, has tainted groundwater and has made people sick.
McClendon accused those critics of distorting the facts. He asserted there have been only a few dozen cases of methane migration of well-water supplies in northeastern Pennsylvania, 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's 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.
"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."
In his speech, McClendon blasted organizers and participants in an anti-drilling rally held outside the convention center.
"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."
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 the state 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.
Environmental activists are countering the industry meeting with their own two-day event focusing on the negative impacts of gas drilling. Several hundred activists and homeowners packed the sidewalks outside the conference Wednesday and called for a moratorium on drilling.