PHILADELPHIA -- When Pennsylvania's natural gas drillers met in this city last year, they were greeted by a crowd of protesters and a swift rebuke from the state's former governor.
One year and one massive piece of state legislation later, the Marcellus Shale Coalition got a warm welcome from Gov. Tom Corbett and the decibel level -- of both the drillers and the anti-drilling activists drawn to the trade group's second gathering at the Philadelphia Convention Center -- is lower.
Not to say low: Opponents of hydraulic fracturing again convened outside with signs declaring that fracking has polluted air and waterways, though the crowd at the start of their counter-event appeared to be significantly smaller than last year's.
Their presence still prompted tight security measures inside. Mr. Corbett and other speakers acknowledged that drillers continue to face public criticism over the safety of gas extraction, even as regulations are tightened.
"We are advancing, even in the face of unreasoning opposition," Mr. Corbett told the ballroom crowd of industry representatives. "Our opponents agree that we can land a rover on Mars, but they can't bring themselves to think that we can safely drill a mile into our own soil."
But the message from protesters -- described by last year's keynote speaker, Chesapeake Energy CEO Aubrey McClendon as "fractivists" -- and the accompanying response from companies and politicians has shifted with the continued development of Marcellus Shale drilling and the approval of a major overhaul to state environmental rules approved in February.
That law, which is being challenged in state court, also enacted a per-well levy on drillers and created statewide zoning for their operations.
Mr. Corbett, an ardent drilling supporter, said Pennsylvania "got that one right" in approving impact fees, which will begin providing money to local governments and statewide environmental programs later this year.
"In addition to the tens of thousands of jobs, I'm here to say thank you, thank you to the industry that has added another $200 million to the common good," Mr. Corbett said, who drew his own protesters during an appearance here Thursday evening.
But he spent most of his remarks looking ahead, touting the promised jobs from the proposed Shell cracker plant and talking of a future where he can fill up his car with natural gas from a turnpike fueling station.
While natural gas prices remain sunken, there was enthusiasm from several presenters on using the byproducts from natural gas, which are used in ethane plants like the Shell cracker to produce chemicals and plastics.
Being able to extract shale gas locally makes producing ethylene from that ethane gas significantly cheaper in the U.S. than among many of its competitors, they said.
"Five, 10 years ago, if I told you that the U.S. was considering a petrochemical investment, an ethylene cracker, I would have been laughed off the stage," said Martha Gilchrist Moore, a senior director with the American Chemistry Council.
The Shell plant proposed near Monaca, Beaver County, is yet to be finalized. But C. Alan Walker -- state Department of Community and Economic Development secretary, who helped woo the company with a lucrative package of tax breaks -- said officials have had discussions with other companies interested in similar projects.
"I think everybody is watching to see what happens with Shell," Mr. Walker said. "Shell is kind of the guinea pig, because it's the first cracker plant that's being built in Appalachia. If that works, there's going to be a lot of people who follow."
The protesters outside generally weren't interested in that message, loudly decrying those operations as harmful to drinking water. As speakers fired up the crowd, though, others described an evolution in their approach. Without a specific piece of legislation to support or oppose, some environmental activists are focusing more on potential ties between methane problems and climate change.
"If you're going to be out there touting it as clean-burning, you're not telling the whole story," said David Masur, executive director of the group PennEnvironment.
Back inside, some conference-goers grumbled quietly that they saw protesters using grills powered by propane to prepare food during the event. But XTO Energy president Jack Williams urged operators to continue their public outreach and education efforts. He noted the 20,000 wells drilled in his hometown of Fort Worth, Texas, and the absence of water issues, saying that "public confidence in shale gas will continue to grow."
The Marcellus Shale Coalition will be launching a new initiative at the convention today dubbed "Ask About Shale," which will answer questions they've gathered during outreach in southeastern Pennsylvania.
While several Democratic state politicians could be heard offering more supportive remarks than they have in the past about working with the industry and learning about its operations, a sharp contrast could still be found in a federal policy debate Thursday morning.
Two top state environmental officials -- current Department of Environmental Protection secretary Michael Krancer and former DEP head Kathleen McGinty, who served under Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell -- served as surrogates for the two presidential campaigns in a panel moderated by journalist Ted Koppel.
Ms. McGinty, speaking on behalf of Democratic President Barack Obama's campaign, said the current administration supports a wide swath of energy development, including natural gas. In contrast, she said Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is focused "almost exclusively on oil," and is interested in "creating a North American juggernaut in oil with Canada and Mexico."
Mr. Krancer, representing the Romney campaign, disputed that view. He described the Obama administration as having a fragmented energy approach, in which too many regulators have overlapping oversight roles.
"There's a lot of fear-mongering going on, and it's coming out of Washington," he said.
Harrisburg Bureau Chief Laura Olson: email@example.com or 1-717-787-4254.