Initiative offers environmental certification of shale gas

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An unusual coalition of industry, environmental and philanthropic organizations yesterday announced an initiative to certify shale-gas producers for their environmental practices.

The Center for Sustainable Shale Development has established 15 performance standards for shale-gas extraction in the Appalachian Basin, governing air and water emissions and climate impacts related to hydraulic fracturing.

Starting later this year, energy companies in shale fields including the Marcellus can apply for review by independent, third-party consultants hired by the Center. The certification is a voluntary process, meant to complement rather than replace government regulation and enforcement.

The Center’s board boasts big names including former New Jersey governor and U.S. EPA head Christine Todd Whitman; former Treasury Secretary and ALCOA CEO Paul O’Neill; Carnegie Mellon University president Jared Cohon; top executives of Shell, Chevron, EQT Corporation and CONSOL Energy; Heinz Endowments president Robert Vagt; and Environmental Defense Fund president Paul King.

The press conference touting the Center was moderated by Andrew Place, EQT’s corporate director for energy and environmental policy and the Center’s interim executive director. Other speakers included O’Neill, Vagt and Conrad Schneider, of the Boston-based Clean Air Task Force (whose executive director, Armond Cohen, also sits on the board).

The event, held in Downtown’s EQT Plaza, was an odd place to do environmental reporting — and not just because you wonder how it’s possible to have “sustainable development” of a nonrenewable resource like shale gas. It was also odd because some of the enviros a reporter would normally hit up for comments about such an initative were sitting up there with reps from Shell, Chevron and EQT.

One of them was Joe Osbourne, legal director for the Group Against Smog and Pollution, probably Pittsburgh’s most venerable grassroots environmental group. After four decades, it’s still a vocal advocate for greener standards.

As recently as a couple years ago, GASP favored a moratorium on shale-gas drilling, at least until more is known about its impacts. But Osbourne says that with thousands of wells already drilled, hundreds of compressor stations pumping away, and a pro-drilling governor in Harrisburg, “it became inescapable, the conclusion that this is here regardless of whether you’re pro shale gas or anti shale gas.” Therefore, he says GASP decided, “We should be focusing our effort on reducing the environmental impact."

Osbourne says he joined the Center’s planning team in late 2011, partway into what became a two-year process.

GASP, which back in the 1970s cut its teeth serving on air-quality committees with the likes of U.S. Steel, is no stranger to hashing things out with corporations. I asked Osbourne whether GASP believed certification would be effective.

“We have something of a reputation to maintain,” he said. “GASP wouldn’t stake our credibility on just another industry PR campaign. I do think this has promise.”

Other environmental groups involved include the Pennsylvania Environmental Council (whose president, Paul King, sits on the Center’s board) and Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future.

The initiative was spearheaded by the Heinz Endowments, whose president, Vagt, says the goal is achieving “the safest possible natural-gas drilling outcomes.” He added that the Center’s performance standards are “rigorous,” with measurable outcomes specified, and not merely based on best practices. Schneider, of the Clean Air Task Force, said that the standards represent “the state of the art” in shale extraction.

The standards (most of which won't apply until 2014 or later) would, among other things, prohibit gas producers from any discharge of wastewater into surface waters; require that drillers recycle a minimum of 90 percent of water contaminated in the drilling process; better protect groundwater from wastewater; reduce the toxicity of fracking fluid; and reduce air emissions from wastewater, onsite engines and on-road trucks. They’d also require pre- and post-drilling tests of local water quality. That’s important because neighbors of wells who say their water has been fouled often have a hard time proving it to the authorities.

Place said that all the standards are stricter than current Pennsylvania law, except for limits on emissions from engines of nitrous oxide, which is slightly less strict than a recently revised state reg and will itself be revised.

One problem the Center’s standards don’t address directly is habitat fragmentation in local fields and woodlands caused by access roads and pipelines. I brought this up with Environmental Defense Fund representative Mark Brownstein, of the Center's planning group. He said the Center's standards requiring a reduced footprint for drilling operations would help alleviate fragmentation. He added, “As stated, [these standards are] a good start, but over time more will be done.”

Speakers at the meeting also generally seemed to accept the notion that switching more of our energy generation from coal and oil to natural gas will help alleviate climate change — a debatable proposition.

A more immediate question is how many energy companies will actually request certification. Board member Paul Goodfellow, a Shell vice president, promised that Shell, for one, would have all its gas operations in Pennsylvania certified. Bruce Niemeyer, president of Chevron Appalachia, said many companies are already meeting or exceeding the Center’s standards — including some of the most profitable firms, because more careful environmental practices correlate with high efficiency. (“Doing the right thing does not cost more money,” chimed in O’Neill.)

A reporter asked why other big players — presumably names like Range Resources and Chesapeake Energy — were not involved in the planning. Place said the group was kept small to help it reach consensus. “There was no effort to exclude anyone,” he said. The next step, he said, is recruiting firms for certification.

Why would those companies bother? Schneider, of the Clean Air Task Force, says it will be crucial to reward certified companies in the marketplace. In other words, they’ll seek certification if it’ll sell more gas. But that will depend largely on whether consumers can choose their own gas supplier — which, unlike with electricity, they can’t really do in Pennsylvania. Someone asked we’d ever have “green gas” — letting consumers choose certified over uncertified suppliers. “We would hope so,” said Schneider.

A cynic might ask whether even the possibility that some companies will get certified might tone down public criticism of the industry in general.

But GASP’s Osbourne says that while a shale-gas moratorium would have been ideal, efforts like the Center’s are worth it. “You’re not going to eliminate risk,” he says. “Any energy-generation process has environmental impact ... It’s how do we minimize that?”

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