(Dow Jones) When energy companies began preparations to drill for natural gas in upstate New York last year, the local Sierra Club quickly organized against them.

The group's New York chapter demanded studies on the environmental risks, pushed for stricter regulations and called for a statewide ban on most gas drilling. The drilling hasn't begun as the state works to develop regulations.

It would have been a typical story of environmentalists battling industry, except for one thing: The national Sierra Club is one of natural gas's biggest boosters.

Carl Pope, the Sierra Club's executive director, has traveled the country promoting natural gas's environmental benefits, sometimes alongside Aubrey McClendon, chief executive of Chesapeake Energy Corp., one of the biggest U.S. gas companies by production.

The national group's pro-gas stance has angered on-the-ground environmentalists in several states who say their concerns are being marginalized.

"It makes us look like the extremists that the industry wants to call us anyway," said Beth Little, a board member of the Sierra Club's West Virginia chapter, which is more skeptical about drilling than the national organization.

The rift in the Sierra Club, one of the country's oldest and most prominent conservation groups, highlights deep divisions in the broader environmental community over natural gas. And pressure from local activists is forcing some major environmental groups to revisit their positions on drilling.

Some activists, such as Mr. Pope, believe increased drilling--with appropriate safeguards--is the best way to wean the U.S. off coal, which they see as the greater environmental threat.

Others, many of them in areas affected by drilling, see potential risks--air pollution, increased water use and soil and water contamination -- as too high.

"It's been an at-times rancorous debate in the environmental community," said Bruce Baizel, an attorney for Earthworks, a national environmental group focused on energy issues.

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