Congress needs to give U.S. natural gas producers a level playing field to compete with other energy sources, an ExxonMobil Corp. executive said Wednesday.

Jack Williams, president of ExxonMobil subsidiary XTO Energy Inc., was a keynote speaker at the World Shale Gas Conference & Exhibition in Grapevine, TX. The gas industry may be fighting for its place at the table, he said, but it's still not presenting a consistent message to policymakers or the public.

"We need an energy policy that ensures a level playing field for all fuel types, including natural gas," he told the audience. Policymakers are "picking the winners and losers," but an energy policy "is most sustainable when it's driven on the market foundation that doesn't include subsidies that could change with the political winds."

Coal remains the largest power generation source in the United States, and Congress has funded a variety of alternative energy sources. In the meantime, gas has been almost ignored, he said.

"Today my message is simple," said Williams. "Energy demand will increase in the long term and natural gas should play a growing role in meeting that demand." And "as an industry we must work together to share a common voice to address the public's concerns" about how efficiently and safely domestic gas can be produced.

Global energy demand, however, "presents a dual challenge. We must both expand energy supplies and do it in a way that's safe, secure, affordable and environmentally responsible. Every day our industry operates at an enormous scale, and meeting the dual challenges are not easy..."

However, this is now the "age of unconventionals," he said. "The world is counting on industry to develop them in a safe and reliable manner. Public concerns are growing due to a lack of familiarity with industry. As rigs move into more populous areas, we need to educate the public...

"The challenge only increases when some groups distort science to advance their agendas. Our job is to restore the public's trust and prove we can develop these resources in a safe and responsible manner."

Shale producers, he said, need to undertake "three critical actions":

The ExxonMobil executive said "environmental activism is not confined to the United States." As shale operators attempt to transfer their know-how to plays outside North America, "it is incumbent that industry sets policy in the United States, which then sets a precedent for around the world."

The gas industry also needs to make it clear to U.S. policymakers that producers "are paying attention to accidents," Williams said. "The industry has an acute awareness of managing risks. The message to [lawmakers] also must be clear that domestic, clean burning natural gas can provide an economic benefit to communities around the country.

"The energy industry already supports nine million full and part-time jobs...and in 2008 alone it provided $385 billion to the economy...On top of those benefits, natural gas holds great promise to reduce greenhouse gas emissions."

The global economic downturn "had a significant short-term impact, but the long-term impact is positive. Natural gas can play a significant role in addressing energy demand, but it's a long road ahead...The best way to realize our full potential is to work together to mitigate the risks to the environment and assure the public...

"Much is expected of us and we need to ensure we deliver. All of us have a role to play."

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