Activists inside and out disrupt Marcellus Shale advisory panel

More than 100 activists gathered outside the advisory committee's meeting in Harrisburg for a noisy protest of shale policies.
More than 100 activists gathered outside the advisory committee's meeting in Harrisburg for a noisy protest of shale policies.
Posted: April 28, 2011

HARRISBURG - The man with the neatly combed hair and the carefully pressed blue suit blended in well at Wednesday morning's meeting of the all-white, mostly over-45, and mostly male Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission.

That is, until he abruptly interrupted the discussion to call the commission's chairman, Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley, a "prostitute."

The interloper was perennial Harrisburg activist Gene Stilp, who came to accuse the commission, assembled last month by Gov. Corbett, of being a tool of the oil and gas industry.

"You are the biggest prostitution ring outside of the legislature," Stilp told commission members shortly after they convened their second meeting.

As Cawley tried to rein him in with ever-louder shouts of, "Sir, sir, please, sir," Stilp looked him in the eye and declared: "You are the largest prostitute in the room."

Stilp was escorted out by plainclothes officers - but the disruptions were only beginning. By lunchtime, a crowd of 100 or so environmental activists and citizens from drilling communities had formed outside the state building near the Capitol to hold a long and noisy protest, complete with banners, bullhorns, and gas masks.

The group spilled into the building and tried to pack the already-crowded meeting room to demand that the panel take public comment immediately instead of at the end of the meeting, as scheduled.

Most of the protesters were turned away at the door and directed to a room upstairs because the meeting room was full. A few had to be escorted out, including one man who was led away by state police as he screamed: "Why . . . are you kicking us out?"

The scene provided another reminder of how emotionally loaded the debate over drilling has become in Pennsylvania, even as the governor and legislature struggle to work out whether to tax natural gas extracted from the Marcellus Shale.

Corbett has steadfastly opposed a tax, but has suggested he would review a proposal for a "local impact fee," provided none of the money raised goes to the general fund. He wants the money to go directly to communities where drilling is occurring.

Senate President Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson) is scheduled to announce details of his plan for a local impact fee Thursday.

So charged was Wednesday's atmosphere that K-9 unit dogs were brought in to sweep the meeting room for explosives or other contraband before the commissioners returned from their lunch break.

Cawley said later that the panel was committed to being open and transparent. Protesters were allowed in for the regularly scheduled public comments portion but were limited to two minutes each to speak, strictly enforced.

The activists who gathered Wednesday said they felt frustrated with the number of industry representatives on the panel, and want it to be disbanded and reassembled to include people affected by drilling in their communities.

The panel was assembled by Corbett to explore ways to ensure that land and water are protected while simultaneously growing the gas drilling industry in Pennsylvania. It is expected to make its recommendations by July.

The 30-member panel includes 13 people with ties to the gas industry, four environmentalists, a smattering of state and local government officials, and a geologist. A number of the commissioners donated to Corbett's campaign.

"It's a total farce," contended Benjamin Ketchum, of an anti-drilling group called Gas Truth.

Stilp, for his part, characterized his outburst Wednesday as the kind of peaceful civil disobedience that he thinks will be necessary if the public is to be heard.

Notwithstanding the panel's sessions being open to the public, he likened it to a famously secretive organization.

"This commission meeting is like a meeting of the Mafia," said Stilp, who has made several runs for state office. "We can't let them operate in the dark."


Contact staff writer Angela Couloumbis at 717-787-5934 or acouloumbis@phillynews.com.

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