The chief executive of the world’s largest shale-gas producer on Wednesday hit back at opponents of hydraulic fracturing, accusing them of fear-mongering and lies as protesters demonstrated against the practice.

Aubrey McClendon, CEO of Chesapeake Energy, told an industry conference that people and the press have a constitutional right to express their views on the controversial gas-extraction process but not to spread untruths.

“In a country where freedom of speech and freedom of the press are enshrined in the Constitution, the privilege of unfettered speech can lead to unfettered fear-mongering,” he told the Shale Gas Insight conference in Philadelphia.

“In addition, the privilege of uncensored publishing, if not balanced by rigorous fact-checking, can lead to broad-based distribution of half truths and outright lies,” he said.

Blasting The Press

His comments follow critical reports in The New York Times, including one suggesting that industry estimates of vast shale gas deposits beneath many US states may have been overstated.

He said cheap, abundant US reserves of natural gas have the potential to transform manufacturing, transportation and other sectors, and can help to revive a national economy that is struggling with persistent low growth and high unemployment.

But those benefits are apparently not recognized by some sections of the public and media, he said.

“It’s certainly frustrating to see that those media outlets don’t seem to appreciate the enormous potential that natural gas has for the entire nation,” he told reporters.

Demonstration Drama

Outside the conference, several hundred opponents of shale-gas extraction with hydraulic fracturing accused the industry of contaminating ground water with toxic chemicals used in “fracking”, and called for a moratorium on the practice until its safety is established.

“We will not sacrifice our water for gas,” Tracy Carluccio of the Delaware Riverkeeper, an environmental group, told protestors.

Susan Breese, a carpenter from Susquehanna County in northeastern Pennsylvania, said her well water turned cloudy after a gas well was drilled about half a mile from her house in 2008.

Testing by state officials and a private company later found high levels of barium, strontium and manganese, which Breese blames on the fracking process. As a result of the contamination, she said the value of her five-acre property has declined by about $100,000, and she has joined a lawsuit with 12 other local families, seeking compensation for the financial loss.

“There should be a moratorium to slow it down, and try and do some scientific tests to find out how they can do it safely,” said Breese, 49.

McClendon said he couldn’t address claims of real-estate losses related to gas drilling, but said there are many instances of land values rising because of lease and royalty payments to landowners by energy companies seeking gas deposits.

Amid claims that methane from gas drilling has migrated into some private water wells, Chesapeake now conducts baseline testing on wells within 2,500 feet of a gas well to determine whether they already contain contaminants before drilling.

The testing has found that 30% of water wells contain pre-existing methane and some other chemicals, McClendon said.

Liking The Utica

Asked about prospects for the Utica Shale, another shale-gas formation that lies beneath the Marcellus in Pennsylvania and surrounding states, McClendon said the company has drilled 20 Utica wells so far, and would be releasing results from that exploration later this year. “We like what we see,” he said.

Exploitation of new fields like the Utica will enable Chesapeake to withstand low market prices for natural gas, McClendon said. For more on the Utica shale, read: Leading The Way From Coal To Gas.

“We are in an extended period of low natural gas prices,” he said. “We just have to work a little harder to keep costs down and find other plays, and that’s why the Utica is so important,” he said.

Editor’s Note: Photo (top) depicting a community protest of fracking in Sharon Spring, NY on August 7, 2011, was originally posted by Bosc D’Anjou on Flickr.