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 fracking in the Northeast that appear to go further than existing state and federal pollution regulations.
The program announced Wednesday will work a lot like 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, and 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.
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.
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.”
In addition to Shell and Chevron, the participants include the Environmental Defense Fund, the Clean Air Task Force, the Heinz Endowments, EQT Corp., Consol Energy and the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, and the organizers hope to recruit others.
It 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, which has been in the works for nearly two years, would be voluntary.
“We believe it does send a signal to the federal government and other states,” said Armand Cohen, the director of the Boston-based Clean Air Task Force. “There’s no reason why anyone should be operating at standards less than these.”
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.
The project will cover Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio — where a frenzy of drilling is under way 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.