Industry and environmentalists make progress on fracking

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Image by danielfoster437/<a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/danielfoster/8460338162/">Flickr</a>

Worthy public policy initiatives get announced every day of the week, and reporters mostly greet them with a shrug. But last week’s announcement of a new center designed to set standards for shale gas development in the Appalachian Basin triggered a wave of media attention.

The Washington Post called the Center for Sustainable Shale Development (CSSD), “a heartening breakthrough in the war over fracking.” And the Associated Press wrote: “Some of the nation's biggest oil and gas companies have made peace with environmentalists, agreeing to a voluntary set of tough new standards for fracking in the Northeast….”

I agree that this is a big deal, and not just because EDF played an important role in the two years of negotiation that led to the formation of this group. It’s a rare to see environmentalists and some of the nation's biggest energy companies working together to improve the safety of natural gas operations.  This coalition is a step in the right direction to better protect the quality of life for people living among the gas fields.  

But, I also need to make a few points clear.

First, the standards put forth by CSSD are no substitute for strong regulation and enforcement.   Voluntary efforts by industry leaders help distinguish the best from the rest and raise the bar for all, but the only path to full protection of our air, water, and health is regulation and enforcement that apply to all.   

Second, some press stories have described CSSD as an “agreement” or “deal” environmental groups have made with industry on fracking. This is not the case. What we’ve agreed to is a set of fifteen standards focused on some of the most pressing problems with shale gas development, and a certification process by which companies would held accountable for complying with those standards in the Marcellus Shale (the nation’s largest shale play located in the Appalachian Basin).  Perhaps the constructive working relationship we’ve developed with the companies participating in CSSD will lead to a broader consensus on the full range of challenges confronting communities in the middle of the shale gale.  We hope so, but we know we are not there yet.

The fifteen initial standards include measures to reduce harmful emissions, such as methane, improve groundwater monitoring and maximize water recycling, among others. This is just the start – we intend to expand and update these standards over time as new information improves our understanding of what is achievable in protecting ground water, air quality and the climate.

Third, some of our environmental colleagues see the voluntary nature of the new standards as a way for the natural gas industry to avoid real oversight, and I understand their skepticism.  But, like I said, CSSD’s standards aren’t being put forward in place of regulation and enforcement. To the contrary, by demonstrating that industry leaders have what it takes to produce shale gas safer, CSSD can help build a broad industry-environmentalist coalition in favor of getting the rules right.

The operative word is “can.” Time will tell how effective this effort is, and whether it is can or should to be replicated elsewhere. The next steps are very important. And the results are what matter. Success will hinge on the integrity of this process.  We are committed to setting clear guidelines for a rigorous certification and auditing process.

In our view, there are a variety of ways to address the serious environmental and health concerns at the center of the contentious debate over shale gas. CSSD is just one of them, though I believe there is value in companies voluntarily submitting to periodic environmental performance audits. We hope local communities will insist that natural gas producers be certified, and that mineral leaseholders and landowners only do business with those who are.

For the shale industry, CSSD provides an opportunity to demonstrate that it is living up to its commitments. For the environmental community, the opportunity lies in helping to foster ongoing improvements from within the industry – thus setting a rising bar for all operators to meet.

Up until now, local communities affected by the shale gas boom have had minimal ability to verify claims that drilling practices in their midst were safe. CSSD gives them a chance to do just that.

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Mark Brownstein

Mark Brownstein

Mark leads EDF’s team on natural gas and is an expert in utility-related issues like transmission development, wholesale and retail electric market design, rate reform, and power plant siting and investment.

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Comments

Several years ago I withdrew my support for EDF because of this issue. EDF has decided that gas is the way forward, and natural gas means hydrofracking. No amount of evidence about the environmental harm (both local and global) of fracking changes EDFs position. They have betrayed their environmental mission, and have betrayed the residents of areas that are or will be subject to hydrofracking. This announcement is only the latest betrayal.

"The standards put forth by CSSD are no substitute for strong regulation and enforcement." Of course they are. Is the EDF naive enough to think this will make states and the Federal government more likely to pass regulations? The gas industry will fight binding regulations tooth and nail, and they always have. And they can use these non-binding (and incomplete and too weak) voluntary guidelines that "both sides" have agreed to as an excuse.

"Some press stories have described CSSD as an '“agreement' or 'deal' environmental groups have made with industry on fracking." Um, EVERY press story describes it that way. That's how it's being portrayed. And from the rest of your paragraph I don't understand in what sense this is not accurate. Are you saying that it doesn't cover all the problems and that it doesn't cover the whole country? That's your clarification?

I am appalled that EDF is letting itself be used in this way and that the media are so careless in their reporting that it's being portrayed as both sides coming to an agreement. EDF, its officers and its directors should be ashamed of themselves, and its members, who think they are supporting an environmental organization, should leave.

(Also, your comments section is full of spam.)

I would like to echo precisely what Evan so eloquently and thoroughly voices in his comment. The fossil fuel industry is corrupt, untrustworthy and non-compliant. Their violation record in Pennsylvania alone speaks volumes about how reliable their word is. The grassroots opposition to HVHF is composed of self educated folks from all walks of life, some of whom call themselves activists and environmentalists, but all are unequivocally committed to upholding a moral obligation to preserving and protecting the land, air and water which sustains us. To accept and embrace your arrogant Your gesture of reconciliation with the gas industry beyond naive, it is arrogant. Shame on ECF for playing soft ball.

But, I also need to make a few points clear.

First, EDF has provided the O&G industry with a public relations gift of appearing to be making gas extraction safer while requiring nothing

Second, EDF has provided the industry with yet another tool to deflect stricter regulation, which is what is desperately need. For decades industry has touted voluntary "best practices" in place of mandatory regulations, and you have greenwashed their strategy with your agreement.

Third, EDF has gotten little or nothing in return. These fifteen standards have ambiguous wording that can render their implementation worthless. This is just like FracFocus which claims to be a database on the composition of frac fluid, but whose participation is voluntary and the data incomplete and unverified.

If there is on thing that the long and ugly history of oil and gas extraction has taught us, it is that the industry will do only what is required of it. These voluntary standard do nothing to in tighten those requirements -- only give the appearance that they do.

I see nothing here that is is the least bit helpful to communities with drilling in their back yards. Where is a commitment to compensate those afflicted?

Your voluntary regulations are yet another example of handing the keys to the henhouse to the wolf. Dumb, if not disingenuous.

Like every industry dominated effort, your version of regulations ignore the following crucial facts:
Contamination of surface and ground waters is only the tip of the bad-effects iceberg which fracking presents. Historic negative (and uncompensated) effects which accompany all oil and gas extraction include: air, light, and noise pollution, degraded public and worker health, home value loss, inability to obtain mortgages, increased demands for public services such as police, fire, jails, courts emergency response teams, hospital care, schools and the boom-bust cycle which leaves communities where extraction occurs worse off overall at the end of the cycle than they would have been had extraction not occurred. In the case of the Marcellus Shale, wells are tapping out in a matter of years rather than decades meaning the that the bust will come extraordinarily quickly. Let's move on to renewables now--first step: end the subsidies to big oil and gas!

First, your fifteen "standards" are nothing to be proud of. They would, for example, allow the industry to withhold information about fracking ingredients considered to be trade secrets. They would establish a 2500-foot radius for water well monitoring when we already have evidence from PA that 2500 feet is not far enough. They would do nothing to ensure that fracking does not industrialize residential and agricultural areas. They would do nothing to ensure that fracking cannot take place literally next door to homes and schools. And these are just some of their weak points.

Second, these standards are in no way required or enforceable. Suppose some poor, unsuspecting citizen were to sign a gas lease with a "certified" company, Suppose she's seen EDF's name and so she trusts this "certification" process. Suppose that the gas company then ignores some or all of the fifteen standards and trashes the citizen's water well and home value. Okay, so now the gas company is no longer certified, but there's no penalty, no fine, no law that says they have to pay any sort of restitution to their victim. What recourse would that victim have other than the only recourse she has now, which is to get a lawyer ASAP and hope she can hang on while the well-heeled gas company spends tons of money on "expert" witnesses and high-powered attorneys? And what would EDF's role in this be, other than having helped the bogusly "certified" gas company commit fraud? Are you planning on bringing water to the citizen, or buying her a new house? I don't think so.

Please, EDF, get real. I used to respect you, but I sure don't respect you any more. There are thousands of us here in NY and in other states who have been following the fracking issue very, very closely. And I do mean closely. As in putting your personal life on hold for five years so you can do things like reading and commenting on hundreds upon hundreds of pages of environmental statements and proposed regulations. We have visited the gas fields of PA, we have spoken to those in PA who have had their lives turned upside down and ruined by the gas companies, we have attended hearings and lectures and seminars given by very qualified people in fields like engineering, medicine, and economics, we have read about fracking, and read and read and read. We are up to speed on this issue. Did you bother to invite any of the NY grassroots groups to help you with these standards, and if not, why not? How about the people in PA who are already suffering numerous negative impacts from fracking? Did you ask them for input of any kind, and if not, why not? Will companies that have already piled up numerous violations in PA be eligible for "certification"? And what about the leases that have already been signed?

I used to be a regular contributor to EDF. For years and years, I happily sent in my annual check. But I'm done with that. I'm not sending my money to an "environmental" organization that helps the gas companies trash the land the endanger the people who live on that land. My money is going to the grassroots groups whose members are real environmentalists who care about and live in the communities that are being fracked or are targeted for fracking.

One more thing: what is the word "sustainable" doing in the Center for Sustainable Shale Development's name? Since when is fossil fuel extraction of any kind "sustainable"? The fact that EDF would agree to such a ridiculously misleading name is, in itself, very disturbing. All you're doing is damaging your own reputation. Very sad.

A long time supporter of EDF, I have just crossed you off my list. I am dismayed that EDF has bought into the gas industry's line that fracking is inevitable, and feel betrayed by an organization that should know better. Increased drilling for natural gas is not the answer. Come on, EDF. We need to be forward thinking here. Climate change requires that we go straight to renewables, promoting them as the alternative to fossil fuels that further contribute to global warming. If reputable organizations like EDF can be hoodwinked by the natural gas industry, then Exxon Mobil may soon be able to stop spending its millions on PR.

It's not surprising that the responses we've received to this post all are from New York, all are highly passionate, and all are highly opposed to our efforts to constructively engage on the question of improving industry production practices. New Yorkers living in the southern tier have had a front row seat as neighboring Pennsylvania, particularly in the early years of the Marcellus Shale gas rush, but even now, has struggled to get its regulatory house in order.  Based on what has occurred in Pennsylvania in recent years, New Yorkers have a right to be alarmed, and skeptical that any amount of mandatory and voluntary efforts will make a difference. 

So why bother?  Well, if you look at this issue solely from the perspective of New York, you could be forgiven for assuming that high volume hydraulic fracturing is a risky but limited practice, and something relatively easy and obvious to avoid.  For New York, this may be so.  The state's unofficial moratorium on high volume hydraulic fracturing remains in place, and appears likely to remain so for many months, if not years to come.

But elsewhere, the horse is decidedly out of the barn. According to the most recent statistics from the US Energy Information Agency, dry shale gas production exceeds 27 billion cubic feet per day, roughly 41% of total national production. When you talk to citizens in places like Colorado, Texas, and Pennsylvania, you get a wide variety of views on whether shale gas development is a good thing or a bad thing, but everyone agrees, for better or worse, it's here. 

And, looking at this from another angle, let's not forget that while New York State is not a major natural gas producer, it is the fifth largest consumer of natural gas in the nation (5% of the national total), and first in the nation in terms of natural gas delivered to commercial customers, and third in terms of residential customers (see EIA database for statistics). So even if New York never becomes a major producer of shale gas, the state is likely, by default, to be a major consumer of shale gas, at least for some time to come. 

EDF’s climate and energy strategy is rooted in this reality.  We work on natural gas not because its great (although we are a happy to see low natural gas prices help drive coal out of our nation’s energy mix) but because it is here and it must be dealt with urgently and responsibly.

EDF takes the view that no community should suffer harm to public health or the environment for the sake of cheap energy, and that is why we are campaigning so aggressively for strong regulation and enforcement in states where shale gas development is most active.  And at the federal level, we are taking a leading role in driving air quality improvements through efforts to update and expand federal air quality standards governing oil and gas development, as well as federal requirements that pertain to oil and gas development on federal lands. We've written about these activities extensively elsewhere on this blog, and invite you to peruse our many posts on the topic of regulation.  I can assure you there will be more to come.

As I've stated repeatedly, CSSD is not a substitute for strong regulation or enforcement.  The standards do not address every issue that government regulation can and should address, or that producers should attend to be considered “safe,” but they do address some of the most pressing issues.  The certification and audit requirement is intended to provide some accountability that the standards will be implemented and adhered to.  We fully expect these standards will evolve over time and that new ones, for example, addressing habitat and land use impacts, will develop. 

We enter into this project with no illusions about the natural gas industry's poor reputation in Pennsylvania and elsewhere.  But when an opportunity comes to engage companies constructively and hold them to a higher standard, we're going to take that opportunity every time.  Yesterday's Wall Street Journal report makes clear that some companies will likely never come to the table willingly, and that even the companies working with us on CSSD still have work to do.  But we think constructive engagement can make a difference.  And we are willing to try.  Our hope is that local officials, landowners, and perhaps even local gas utilities who purchase the gas that is delivered to your homes and businesses will begin to ask whether the producers they are doing with are certified and are meeting CSSD standards, and in so doing, send a message to producers that nothing less than adherence to leading edge practices and continuous improvement is acceptable.

And finally, for all of the work we are doing to try to reduce the impact of natural gas on communities and the climate, we believe that energy efficiency and renewable energy are the critical path to our nation's clean energy future.  I invite those who question EDF's dedication to energy efficiency and renewables to read through the many things we are doing to accelerate a transition to a clean, low carbon future, starting here. As an organization, we can walk and chew gum at the same time.  And I’ve worked with enough talented people in the environmental community to know that, as a movement, we can do the same.

Mr. Brownstein: If EDF is serious about improving the shale gas mess via better regulations, then why isn't it calling for a moratorium on fracking pending real regulations as opposed to voluntary standards? Also, why are the CSSD's standards so weak? And I ask you again, what on earth is the word "sustainable" doing in the CSSD's name? And what about the fact that the industry almost certainly hyped the numbers to make it seem that there is a lot more technically recoverable shale gas in the U.S. than is in fact the case?How much environmental damage, financial cost, and harm to human health are we supposed to tolerate in return for a very limited amount of shale gas?

With all due respect I have to tell you that you're not fooling anyone who is up to speed on this issue, and I'm not talking just about the people who live in NY--I'm talking about people all over the country who live in or near shale gas regions. The people who have had to live with the mess know how bad it is and they know that your standards will result, at most, in only marginal improvements. If EDF's goal is to damage its reputation, then it's doing a great job.

I never joined EDF, and the new program to help give Big Petro cover on fracking makes me glad I didn't. I'd like to get less mail from EDF trying to get me to join, because at this point it's just more stuff for the recycling bin. Regarding fracking, we already have a high enough level of petroleum distillates in our water here, we don't need to ramp it up in a major way. I also don't want to have to get used to the smell of hydrogen sulfide wafting through the air, as I understand it's not too healthy for the liver or the pancreas.

I've read several threads on forums that fracking is being banned in some specific areas. I guess it is more dangerous. I'm sure it brings harm effects to the environment. Do those firms that use fracking have gone to proper paper discovery? Its better safety at first hand.

SPEAKING FROM MICHIGAN - NOT NEW YORK - this Great Lakes States natural resources are in the throes of being dismantled for all time by FRACKING. I have supported EDF for years and I will no longer. How could you sell us out? All the points made above are valid and you know it. You are a disgrace to all of us who believed in your efforts over the years. Michigan is in a drought, wells are permitted RIGHT NOW to draw 30 million gallons of water per well in Kalkaska County. (Not the 5-6 the industry states) Lakes, rivers and wells will be drained and any water remaining contaminated. 400 acres of pristine forest clear cut and bulldozed per well. If this industry is so great that EDF is behind it - why the Halliburton Loophole in 2005?? Why is this industry exempt from all regulation and responsibility and accountability and why on Gods Earth is a organization that had your reputation part of this sham?