TitleNew center ready for Utica, Marcellus drillers to seek certification for complying with 15 voluntary standards
BodyAn unusual collaboration between oil and gas companies and some environmental groups in Pittsburgh opened its doors Tuesday. The Center for Sustainable Shale Development that has come under fire from both sides said it is now accepting applications for a program that aims to enforce 15 voluntary standards for drilling and related activities in Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. The new standards, designed to protect air, water and climate, are tough and are designed to complement state and federal rules, officials said. Those initial 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. Companies can seek certification for meeting the standards that generally go further than existing state and federal regulations. The certification process is essentially an independent review of each applicant’s practices for drilling and environmental protection, measured against Center for Sustainable Shale Development standards. A company that passes the review also will be monitored for compliance over the next two years, at which point it must go through the review process again. 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 has led to fears of pollution and climate change. Officials announced that Philadelphia attorney Susan Packard LeGros will head the center. It has contracted with Bureau Veritas, a French testing and inspection firm, to review applications and compliance by drillers. To date, four drilling companies — CONSOL Energy, Shell, EQT Corp. and Chevron — have joined in the program that was unveiled last March. It came under fire from some eco-groups and also was greeted with strong suspicion by many drillers. Also involved in the center are the Environmental Defense Fund, the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, the Clean Air Task Force, the Group Against Smog and Pollution, PennFuture and three philanthropic foundations. Center costs are paid by the drillers and the eco-groups. The Sierra Club blasted the center, saying the effort is not meaningful and that a voluntary program is no substitute for tough federal and state rules on drilling. Some energy companies including Chesapeake Energy — the No. 1 player in Ohio’s Utica shale — have suggested that there’s no need to go beyond existing state regulations and have said they won’t join or support the center. A response from the pro-industry Ohio Oil & Gas Association was not immediately available. The center’s goal is to promote “prudent and responsible” shale development in the Utica and Marcellus shales, said Andrew Place, the center’s interim executive director. The center’s standards “set the bar high” and exceed regulatory minimums, he said in a teleconference Tuesday. The new center will produce environmental benefits faster than waiting for state or federal rules on drilling, said Christine Todd Whitman, a Center for Sustainable Shale Development board member and former New Jersey governor and former head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Curtis Smith, a spokesman for Shell, said the company will apply for certification in the second quarter of 2014. Place, an executive with Pittsburgh-based EQT, said he expects his company to apply in the spring. CONSOL Energy — with drilling operations in Ohio and based in Canonsburg, Pa. — said: “We are pleased to partner with the diverse stakeholders and viewpoints associated with this effort. CSSD clearly demonstrates that with constructive, open dialogue, we can continue to push the envelope, innovate and move the needle toward progress that allows our region to responsibly capitalize on the generational opportunity that shale development represents.” Center officials have also had preliminary discussions with other drilling companies about seeking certification, Place said. He declined to say which companies might be interested. Seeking certification will cost drilling companies $30,000 to $50,000 and take three to six months, officials said. Bureau Veritas will review the application and compliance and submit a report to the center. The documents will be reviewed and a decision will be made by a five-member panel. The center’s voluntary standards got a cool response from Ohio environmentalists. Voluntary standards work best when they are codified with penalties and if those standards are better than Ohio rules, maybe those Ohio rules should be changed, said attorney Nathan Johnson of the Columbus-based Ohio Environmental Council.
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