Environmentalists and Drillers Become 'Unusual Bedfellows'

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
20 March 2013
By Timothy Puko

Some of the world's biggest energy companies are collaborating with the country's biggest environmental groups in an unusual alliance to improve protections for groundwater, air quality and the climate from drilling in Appalachian shale.

Eleven organizations officially began the Center for Sustainable Shale Development at a Downtown announcement on Wednesday. The Tribune-Review first reported on the group in February.

Oil and gas producers have faced relentless pressure from critics to be more environmentally responsible and transparent about industry practices as drilling has increased across the country. The cooperation underscores efforts by the usually fierce opponents to find common ground.

“While the potential economic and environmental benefits of shale gas are substantial, the public expects transparency, accountability and a fundamental commitment to environmental safety and the protection of human health,” said former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, one of several outsiders involved in the group to help balance the environmental and industry members.

By fall, the group hopes to have consultants inspecting drilling operations and performance data to determine whether companies are following the highest possible standards, leaders said. It is starting with 15 standards covering water use and air emissions, with hopes to add safety standards later.

To get certified, drillers won't be able to use open-air ground pits to store wastewater or be able to vent gas during initial production. They would even have to tighten emissions from the trucks their contractors use on the road, which could be one of the toughest standards to meet, members said.

The shale gas boom sparked by the use of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing has released billions of dollars of new wealth across the region — and complaints of environmental and health problems along with it. While much of that has come from environmental groups, even some drilling proponents, consultants and shareholder groups criticized oil and gas companies for failing to meet the lofty claims of safety and transparency they've made in interviews and advertisements.

For the environmental groups, it's a chance to influence a growing economic sector. While some groups have taken extreme positions and moved to block drilling, the groups joining the center have tried to stake out a middle ground, showing measured support for drilling in exchange for a chance to push for increased environmental protections.

“It's the question citizens will now ask (their local drillers): ‘Are you certified?' ” Mark Brownstein of the Environmental Defense Fund said at the public introduction of the program at the Heinz Endowments headquarters, Downtown. “That, I think, is what's so important about this effort. It gives the general public an option to hold these (drillers) accountable to the rhetoric they espouse.”

The group expects to have a budget of $800,000 for 2013. The board will have 12 seats — split evenly among environmentalists, industry representatives and independent directors.

The Environmental Defense Fund, The Heinz Endowments, Chevron Corp., Cecil-based Consol Energy Inc., EQT and Royal Dutch Shell plc are among collaborators with seats on the board. Along with O'Neill, former New Jersey governor and Environmental Protection Agency chief Christine Todd Whitman and Carnegie Mellon University President Jared Cohon were added to help balance the environmental and industry members.

“That idea of having absolute equality and balance throughout is important,” Paul Goodfellow, the Shell vice president of U.S. unconventionals, said at an interview before the press conference. “There's no one group that could be perceived as having undue levels of control.”

Members are hoping the announcement leads to public momentum encouraging more companies to sign up for certification. Shell plc is ready to be one of the first to go through the certification process.

President Obama's shale gas advisers recommended the creation of groups such as this in 2011. Supporters are hoping it becomes an example for drillers nationwide, pushing for a set of continually evolving benchmarks and increasing public confidence. With industry collaborating to set cutting-edge standards, an increase in the rigor of government regulations could follow, supporters said.

The certification process is what pushes this center beyond what industry trade groups do, members said. It will measure companies based on performance outcomes, like a college accreditation agency or how LEED certification works for environmentally friendly buildings. It's a first for the oil and gas industry, but others, including chemical and nuclear power, have effectively used it before, experts have said.

“It's not going to be an easy task by any means,” Diana Stares, director of the Center for Energy Policy and Management at Washington & Jefferson College. “It gives something citizens can understand, something more concrete than whether they're in compliance with regulations.”

Several others have tried and failed to form such a group for the oil and gas industry, Brownstein said. The Heinz Endowments failed in past attempts, said Robert Vaght, the endowment president and a center board member. He called the partners “unusual bedfellows.”

When they took entrenched positions early on, some thought this group would fail, too. But industry officials started openly sharing company data with their environmental counterparts and they sometimes spent 12 hours together on road trips to visit well sites. It all increased the bond and trust between members, Place said.

“People really worked at this because each side felt this was so important,” Vaght said.

Timothy Puko is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7991 or tpuko@tribweb.com.