ANCHORAGE (AP) Gov. Frank Murkowski veered from an expected speech before the Palmer Chamber of Commerce to address growing concerns about exploratory drilling for natural gas in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley.
In attendance at the event Wednesday were critics of shallow gas drilling for methane, a kind of natural gas found in coal that a company wants to tap into in the Valley.
Evergreen Resources Alaska Corp. hopes to probe a band of coal that extends from Chickaloon to Talkeetna. The company already operates test wells between Wasilla and Houston.
Some Valley residents say they're worried that industry-friendly legislators and Murkowski's push for more resource extraction have set the stage for future drilling with little government interference.
As the governor arrived at the chamber luncheon, he was greeted by two dozen protesters standing outside the Palmer Moose Lodge. They held signs painted with anti-drilling slogans. Even a dog wore a sign: ''Drill at Frank's house first.''
Murkowski walked over to the group and started shaking hands.
''Yeah, we'll be happy to talk with you about it. I'm glad you're here,'' he said. ''Come in and have lunch.''
Inside, an unusually large chamber crowd of about 250 people waited. At first, Murkowski's speech touched on the state's economy, education and a ''60 Minutes'' TV interview he wrapped up Monday at Prudhoe Bay.
Then he turned to coal bed methane.
''Obviously this is a relatively new operation in Alaska, so you're understandably concerned,'' Murkowski said.
Critics have complained about the program's meager public notice requirements, potential risk to drinking water and the fact that the state's subsurface rights trump the rights of property owners. That means the state can allow a company to drill on private land if property owners don't hold the mineral rights.
Similar drilling operations in other states have tainted drinking water and depleted wells, critics contend.
Murkowski said the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission regulates drilling to protect water. Any company that gets permission to drill must provide a bond to cover future damages.
Randy Ruedrich, a AOGCC commissioner and the state's Republican Party chairman, told the crowd the state asks for public comment before issuing a lease. Then, if a company gets the lease and wants to drill, a hearing is held and the company must work with the landowner.
''No individual is going to have his surface rights compromised without some due process,'' Murkowski said. He promised to ''recommend changes in existing statute if needed.''
Afterward, drilling opponents said they weren't reassured.
''They keep portraying the industry as so clean,'' Chris Rose, a Sutton attorney, told the Anchorage Daily News. ''If that's the case, why did all of this happen under the radar?''
The lease near his property was cleared three years ago before he heard about the application, Rose said.
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