Environmentalists, oil companies finding ways to work together

The Pittsburgh-based Center for Sustainable Shale Development is attracting lots of attention these days. The Center is intended to be a way in which environmental groups, foundations, and major oil and gas companies could work together to support common-sense measures to protect air and water from pollution in the Appalachian region. They have invited other groups to join in and help minimize pollution from drilling and hydraulic fracturing operations.

Among the diverse groups that have joined the Center are Shell, Chevron, CONSOL Energy, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Clean Air Task Force, PennFuture, and the Pittsburgh-based Heinz Endowments, which is providing some of the Center’s funding. Some of the companies and groups that have been critical of the Center and its mission include Range Resources and the Sierra Club.

In Pennsylvania, which has more new shale gas wells than any other state in the region, four of the 10 largest shale operators have signed on with the center — meaning six have not.

Fracking has become somewhat of a political hot potato, and people on both sides of the issue have staked out their positions, with many unwilling to budge. Hardcore elements in both camps do not want to accept compromise.

One blogger familiar with the issues commented that he believes “extremist elements on both sides of the fracking issue” will become increasingly marginalized.

The Pittsburgh-based Heinz Endowments is providing some of the funding for the Center for Sustainable Shale Development, and it has also provided significant funding to groups and researchers that are critical of fracking.

A Heinz Foundation spokesman said that there is a lot to be gained from having representatives from all sides of the issue engage in construction dialogue rather than shouting slogans and arguing in media sound bites.

The Foundation has said it hopes the Center can help develop standards that protect the environment using the best science and available technology. When it does, it hopes to put its stamp of approval (sort of like an Underwriters Laboratories “UL” seal of approval) on operations that conform to its standards.

Drilling companies would be encouraged to submit to an independent review of their operations. If they are found to be abiding by a list of 15 stringent measures, they will receive the center's blessing. The Center would release the names of companies that apply for the certification, starting later this year. The group stresses that the program is meant to compliment state and federal regulations, not replace them.

Initially, the project will cover Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio, where a drilling boom is occurring in the Marcellus and Utica shale formations. Additional states may be included later.

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