Environmentalists and Drillers Become 'Unusual Bedfellows'
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
“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
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
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
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
“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 firstname.lastname@example.org.