Industrial and philanthropic leaders are collaborating on a list of quality standards for gas drillers with the intent to make natural gas a lasting resource.
The Center for Sustainable Shale Development, or CSSD, is looking to provide third-party approval for drilling companies, certifying those that meet its 15 quality standards.
Heavy hitters in resource development such as Chevron, Shell and Consol Energy have partnered with environmental and philanthropic groups such as the Heinz Endowment, Clean Air Task Force and the Environmental Defense Fund to define, apply and audit these standards for drilling companies to lessen environmental impact for the decades of shale drilling to come in the Appalachian Basin, said Andrew Place, the center’s interim executive director.
The center, based in Pittsburgh, focuses its current 15 standards on the Appalachian Basin — the Marcellus, Utica and Devonian shale deposits — because, Place said, the geography, geology and climate of the region are unique and call for different standards than, say, on the Texas plains.
Place also said that by starting with a discreet set of tasks, defining only best practices for groundwater protection and air-emissions control, the group can see that those standards are properly implemented before moving on.
The group has to put together what Place called “the proverbial parking lot” for other industry concerns such as employee safety.
“We said, ‘Let’s put those in a box and, as soon as we finish version one, we’ll go ahead and tackle these,’ ” Place said.
In an industry that is still developing, these partnering organizations create adaptive standards that are intuitive to technology and procedure advances, Place said. He said collaboration has been invaluable.
“We find critical mass in having these experts from these disparate groups in the same room pushing these concepts,” Place said.
Launched officially March 20, Place said at the center the group hopes to begin certifying drilling companies by summer. He said certification will give those companies social license to operate and, he hopes, to see local governments and landowners calling for CSSD certification before opening their borders to drillers.
Hanger, who works for the law firm Eckert Seamans supporting its energy and environment-minded legal services, had started the center under a different name as he prepared to leave his state post.
Hanger said he cherry-picked organizations to be a part of the Institute for Drilling Excellence, a self-governing body with 12 board members — four from the drilling industry, four environmentalists and four non-affiliated representatives.
Place said the drilling companies are essential because they are the drilling-process specialists, but Hanger said they are the minority with their vote counting only for a third of the decisions.
While the center promises heightened attention to responsible industry, it has been called a “Band-Aid on a gaping wound” by the Sierra Club and a marketing ploy by some environmentalist groups.
Because, legally, a drilling company is not required to have certification from the CSSD, which is a non-governmental agency, it could sue for drilling access if a land owner or municipality demands CSSD certification, said Gas Drilling Awareness Coalition spokesman Tom Jiunta.
“The thing has no teeth to it. It’s all voluntary,” Jiunta said. “They could go into a town, if anyone denies them drilling, they could sue them.”
Jiunta referred to a statement from Paul Goodfellow, a vice president for Shell’s U.S. oil operations, who, in a Financial Times article, said “The big thing is finding a way to give the public an understanding and a confidence in what we are doing”
Jiunta said the statement shows that the center is more interested in keeping drillers’ reputations clean than encouraging clean drilling.
“Their goal is not to make it safer. Their goal is to make it more acceptable,” Jiunta said.
State Department of Environmental Protection Deputy Press Secretary Kevin Sunday said DEP supports the center and said its standards, with a few exceptions, exceed the state’s.
“If you violate our regulations, there’s a chance for environmental impact,” Sunday said. He said that if a gas company shoots for even higher standards, they may never get close to violating the department’s.
Jiunta also said best practices arrive a little too late. With around 12,000 well permits currently issued in the state and seven to eight new permits issued each day, by the time standards are implemented and drillers seek certification, too many holes will be in the ground, he said.
Sunday confirmed that obligatory CSSD certification would have to be mandated at a state or federal level and he said he wasn’t sure legislators even had power to do it. But, Hanger said, legislation aside, he foresees municipalities, landowners and gas customers alike demanding companies follow the center’s standards.
“It’s going to be harder and harder for a gas company to explain why they don’t have certification,” Hanger said.
Though best practices may hold gas companies accountable to safer operating standards, Jiunta said they inspire a false sense of security for an intrinsically irresponsible form of extraction.
“I think it’s dangerous,” Jiunta said. “It could be misleading.”