Industry, Environmentalists Agree on Tough Standards
20 March 2013
By The Associated Press
PITTSBURGH -- Some of the nation's biggest oil and gas companies
have made peace with environmentalists, agreeing to a voluntary
set of tough standards for fracking in the Northeast that could
lead to a major expansion of drilling.
The program announced Wednesday will work a lot like Underwriters
Laboratories, which puts its familiar UL seal of approval on
electrical appliances that meet its standards.
In this case, drilling and pipeline companies will be encouraged
to submit to an independent review of their operations. If they
are found to be abiding by a list of stringent measures to protect
the air and water from pollution, they will receive the blessing
of the new Pittsburgh-based Center for Sustainable Shale
Development, created by environmentalists and the energy industry.
Many of the new standards appear to be stricter than state and
If the project wins wide acceptance, it could ease or avert some
of the ferocious battles over fracking that have been waged in
statehouses and city halls. It also could hasten the expansion of
fracking by making drilling more acceptable to states and
communities that feared the environmental consequences.
Shell Oil Vice President Paul Goodfellow said this is the first
time the company and environmental groups have reached agreement
to create an entire system for reducing the effects of shale
"This is a bit of a unique coming-together of a variety of
different interests," said Bruce Niemeyer, president of Chevron
In agreeing to the self-policing system, members of the industry
said they realized they needed to do more to reassure the public
about the safety of fracking. On the other side, environmentalists
said they came to the conclusion that the hundreds of billions of
dollars in oil and gas underground is going to be extracted one
way or another and that working with the industry is the quickest
path to making the process safer.
"We do recognize that this resource is going to be developed,"
said Robert Vagt, president of the Heinz Endowments, a charitable
foundation that has bankrolled anti-fracking efforts. "We think
that it can be done in a way that does not do violence to the
In addition to Shell and Chevron, the participants include the
Environmental Defense Fund, the Clean Air Task Force, EQT Corp.,
Consol Energy and the Pennsylvania Environmental Council. The
organizers hope to recruit others.
The new standards include: limits on emissions of methane, a
potent greenhouse gas, and the flaring, or burning off, of
unwanted gas; reductions in engine emissions; groundwater
monitoring and protection; improved well designs; stricter
wastewater disposal; the use of less-toxic fracking fluids; and
seismic monitoring before drilling begins.
For example, the plan requires companies to recycle 90 percent of
their wastewater and to check water supplies around a well for
pollution for a year after drilling is completed.
The project will cover Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio --
where a frenzy of drilling is underway in the huge, gas-rich
Marcellus and Utica shale formations -- as well as New York and
other states in the East that have put a hold on new drilling.
The cooperation between the two longtime adversaries might be part
of a trend.
Earlier this month, industry and environmental groups in Illinois
announced that they worked together on drilling legislation now
pending there. The Pittsburgh project, though, which has been in
the works for nearly two years, would be voluntary -- and would
bypass the often turbulent legislative process altogether.
"We believe it does send a signal to the federal government and
other states," said Armand Cohen, director of the Boston-based
Clean Air Task Force. "There's no reason why anyone should be
operating at standards less than these."
Shell said it hopes to be one of the first companies to volunteer
to have its operations in Appalachia go through the independent
review. Chevron said it expects to apply for certification, too,
when the process is ready to start later this year.
Mark Brownstein, an associate vice president with the
Environmental Defense Fund, said many oil and gas companies claim
to be leaders in protecting the environment, and that "this can be
one opportunity for them to demonstrate that leadership," by
submitting to an audit.
During fracking, large volumes of water, along with sand and
hazardous chemicals, are injected into the ground to break rock
apart and free the oil and gas. In some places, the practice has
been blamed for air pollution and gas leaks that have ruined well
The Pittsburgh project will be overseen by a 12-member board
consisting of four seats for environmentalists, four for industry
and four for independent figures, including former Treasury
Secretary Paul O'Neill and Christine Todd Whitman, the former New
Jersey governor and Environmental Protection Agency chief.
The center's proposed 2013 budget is $800,000, with the two sides
expected to contribute equal amounts, said Andrew Place, the
project's interim leader and director of energy and environmental
policy at EQT, an Appalachian energy company.
Mark Frankel, an expert on ethics and law at the American
Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, said the
idea sounds promising, but that it remains to be seen if the new
standards are a significant improvement over existing laws. He
said there also are ethical and policy questions.
"What does it mean to have an independent board?" he asked. "Who's
on it? How do they get on it?"
George Jugovic, president of the environmental group PennFuture,
one of the participants, said the industry's involvement makes
this different from past debates over fracking.
"Buy-in from them is huge. That provides leadership from within,"
Jugovic said. "It's very different from someone from the outside
saying, 'You can do better.'"
Some critics of fracking, however, aren't swayed by the new plan.
"Fracking is an inherently dangerous industrial process that takes
us away from sustainable energy solutions," said Kathy Nolan of
Catskill Mountainkeeper, which is fighting fracking in New York
state. "Its costs to humans and our environment just aren't worth