The shale industry might need to go on the offensive against its critics, the head of an advocacy group told an audience in Pittsburgh Tuesday.

“Personally, I am about at the point where I think we need to start calling out the motivations of some of the opponents who are far from pure and are not environmentally driven,” Kathryn Klaber, president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition (MSC), said at the Northeast Shale Gas Symposium. “To say that the coalition’s been shook down by environmental groups who want several hundred million dollars a year to fund their budgets and their programs is an understatement. There are groups out there who have a bottom line interest in attracting new members and fear mongering drives their bottom line. It’s about time that be understood.”

Since its creation in 2008, the MSC has become the most prominent voice supporting shale development in the Marcellus. In addition to its promotional efforts, the MSC often responds to critics of development. In fact, adding staff to help “play defense” is “the single biggest regular addition to our budget,” Klaber said, citing a recent New York Times series on natural gas drilling and a Duke University study on hydraulic fracturing and water quality (see Shale Daily, May 11; March 1).

“There is a Wild West mentality about what can be out there in the public domain,” Klaber said.

The MSC typically combats those criticisms through “proactive messaging,” Klaber said. For instance, the group plans to meet soon with the Pennsylvania Department of Education to ask that the documentary Gasland not be used in classrooms to meet classroom requirements for energy and environmental studies.

But that’s not enough, she added.

“The challenge right now is that the amount of proactive messaging being done right now by the industry or by the coalition is being really thwarted by what are perceived as sexier stories,” she said, adding that the challenge is compounded because the public is generally skeptical of messaging from the natural gas industry.

Just how skeptical?

John Martin, a former project manager for the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, pointed to a 2010 study by the Penn State Cooperative Extension where 47% of respondents said they had little or no trust in the natural gas industry, more than any other group involved in development. With that level of distrust, Martin said, “Katie Klaber is not trusted by anybody outside the industry. You can write off whatever she says now: This is how people view the industry.”

Martin seconded Klaber’s claim that environmental groups are using shale development as a fundraising tool, calling it “the biggest boom since Exxon Valdez.”

He noted also how opposition of natural gas development is now a celebrity cause, drawing support from Mark Ruffalo, Blythe Danner and Debra Winger.

“You probably didn’t know, but in New York State a celebrity is a technical expert on whatever they choose to be,” Martin said, drawing laughs.