PITTSBURGH — Like a marriage the in-laws don't approve of, a new plan to strengthen standards for fracking is creating unusual divisions among environmentalists and supporters of the oil and gas industry.
At first glance, it's hard to fathom all the angst over the Pittsburgh-based Center for Sustainable Shale Development. Environmental groups, foundations, and major oil and gas companies came together to support stringent measures to protect air and water from pollution in the Appalachian region, and they invited other groups to join in and help limit pollution from fracking.
Not everyone was flattered by the invitation.
“WHOOO-HOOO, Frackers and Environmentalists collaborate!” noted the anti-drilling Web site No Fracking Way, in a post titled “Fracking Center and Fluffy Kittens.”
The Sierra Club called the new plan “akin to slapping a Band-Aid on a gaping wound,” and a coalition of grass-roots groups called No Frack Ohio claimed that the plan “simply puts green lipstick on a pig.”
The fight is so toxic in part because fracking has become a symbol for the even bigger debate over climate change. Both sides see a historic crossroads, like an energy version of D-Day or Waterloo, in which the winner will determine energy and climate policy for decades to come.
One side envisions an immediate, all-out embrace of renewable energy and a virtual boycott of all fossil fuels. The other says that whether we like it or not, the transition to renewables will take decades, and in the meantime, we need to use technology and new partnerships to make fracking as safe and clean as possible.
The pro-drilling Marcellus Drilling News website wrote that if energy companies such as Shell and Chevron “want to craft an organization that compromises (too far) with eco-nuts, go right ahead and disadvantage yourselves. But don't require everyone else to follow your lead.”
Some drilling companies politely said they aren't joining the new coalition, either.
“No,” Range Resources spokesman Matt Pitzarella wrote in an email to The Associated Press, though he added they “commend the groups for coming together.”
In Pennsylvania, which has more new shale gas wells than other states in the region, four of the top ten drillers have signed on with the center — meaning six haven't.
One expert suggested that the idea of peace between environmentalists and energy companies threatens extremists on both sides of the fracking debate.
“As moderates in the gas industry and in the environmental community work together more in coming years to improve drilling practices, I think you will see the extremes in both camps become increasingly marginal and isolated, and I think that's a good thing,” environmentalist Michael Shellenberger wrote in an email. Shellenberger isn't a part of the shale partnership, but he supports the idea.
Other commentators see promise in opposing sides working together, too.
The Washington Post editorial board called the new plan “a heartening breakthrough in the war over fracking” whose new rules are “a large step toward striking the right balance, and everyone involved deserves credit.”
During fracking, large volumes of water, along with sand and hazardous chemicals, are injected into the ground to break rock apart and free the oil and gas. In some places, the practice has been blamed for air pollution and gas leaks that have ruined well water, but the Obama administration and many state regulators say the practice is safe when done properly.
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.
Foundation President Robert Vagt wrote in an email that isolating extreme voices may be “a secondary consequence” of the new plan, but that's not the focus.
“Our sole motivation at The Heinz Endowments — one I believe is shared by all CSSD partners — is to engage directly the challenges of developing” shale oil and gas, “which are being argued primarily in sound bites for the media rather than in constructive dialogue.”
“The consistent approach of CSSD has been to use the best science and available technology to develop standards that protect the environment,” Vagt said.
In addition to Shell, Chevron and the Heinz Endowments, the participants in the new center include the Environmental Defense Fund, the Clean Air Task Force, CONSOL Energy, PennFuture and other groups.
The center aims to work much like Underwriters Laboratories, which puts its familiar UL seal of approval on electrical appliances that meet its standards.
Drilling companies will 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 new group says that it will be transparent and release the names of those who apply for the certification, starting later this year, and that the program is meant to compliment state and federal regulations, not replace them.
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. If fracking is approved in New York and Maryland, which have put a hold on new drilling, it could apply there, too.
For now, some environmental groups and drillers are waiting and seeing, or politely declining.
The Natural Resources Defense Council hasn't yet considered being a part of the center, spokeswoman Kate Slusark wrote in an email.
“Broadly speaking, voluntary programs like this one have the potential to help raise standards for companies that participate,” Slusark noted, while adding that there is a “dire need” for federal and state fracking rules that apply to all energy companies.
William Chameides, dean of Duke University's school of the environment, said he is withholding judgment until more details are available.
“It never hurts to talk. It never hurts to negotiate,” Chameides said. “In general, I see this as a positive development but as in most things the devil is in the details.”