In an unlikely partnership between longtime adversaries, some of the nation’s biggest energy companies and environmental groups have agreed on a voluntary set of standards for gas and oil drilling in Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
These standards appear to go further than existing state and federal pollution regulations.
The collaborative program announced Wednesday in Pittsburgh will work a lot like the Underwriters Laboratories, which puts its 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 taking certain steps to protect the air and water, they will receive the blessing of the brand-new Pittsburgh-based Center for Sustainable Shale Development.
The unique program will begin with 15 specific standards to protect the air and water and to minimize the release of global warming gases from the Utica and Marcellus shales.
The standards and the independent third-party evaluation process were drafted by four energy companies and other parties in meetings over two years.
The standards were described by the parties as “progressive and rigorous” and “meaningful” and go beyond just compliance.
The first certifications of drilling operations in Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia are likely to be released later this year.
If the project succeeds, it could have far-reaching implications for both the industry and environmental groups. A nationwide boom in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has unleashed huge new energy reserves but also led to fears of pollution and climate change.
“While shale development has been controversial, everyone agrees that, when done, producers must minimize environmental risk,” said Armond Cohen, executive director of the Boston-based Clean Air Task Force. “These standards are the state of the art on how to accomplish that goal, so we believe all Appalachian shale producers should join CSSD and the standards should also serve as a model for national policy and practice.
“We believe it does send a signal to the federal government and other states,” he said. “There’s no reason why anyone should be operating at standards less than these.”
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 drilling.
“This is something new,” said Bruce Niemeyer, president of Chevron Appalachia. “This is a bit of a unique coming together of a variety of different interests.”
Said Nicholas Deluliis, Consol Energy president, “CSSD is focusing on the establishment of standards that will initially address the protection of air and water quality and climate and will be expanded to include other performance standards such as safety. Fundamentally, the aim is for these standards to represent excellence in performance.”
The center also plans to develop programs for drillers to share best practices.
In addition to Shell and Chevron, the participants include the Environmental Defense Fund, the Clean Air Task Force, EQT Corp., Consol Energy, the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, the Group Against Smog and Pollution, Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future, the William Penn Foundation and the Heinz Endowments.
The program is expected to cover Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and perhaps New York and other East Coast states that have banned hydraulic fracturing or fracking.
Organizers said they hope to recruit others, including such drilling companies as Chesapeake Energy Corp., the No. 1 player in Ohio’s Utica shale.
Chesapeake Energy, also a key player in the Marcellus shale, declined comment on the new center after Wednesday’s announcement and referred reporters to the Marcellus Shale Coalition, a Pennsylvania-based trade group. That group supports the new initiative, CEO Kathryn Klaber said in a statement.
The new center may be part of a trend. Earlier this month a coalition of industry and environmental groups in Illinois announced that they worked together on drilling legislation now pending there. But the Pittsburgh project would be voluntary.
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.
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.
The project will be overseen by a 12-member board consisting of four seats for environmentalists, four for industry and four for independent figures. They include: former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill; Christine Todd Whitman, the former New Jersey governor and Environmental Protection Agency chief; Carnegie Mellon University President Jared Cohon, and Jane Long, former associate director at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
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 it remains to be seen if the new standards are a significant improvement over existing laws. He said there are also ethical and policy questions involving money and governance.
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,” he said. “It’s very different from someone from the outside saying, ‘You can do better.’ ”
For more information, go to www.sustainableshale.org.
Beacon Journal reporter Bob Downing and the Associated Press contributed to this report.