17 Apr 2013

Center for Sustainable Shale Development – peeling back the packaging

Written by Jim Pierobon

Since its launch about one month ago (see The Energy Fix, March 22), the Center for Sustainable Shale Development has been met with accolades from entities such as The Washington Post to harsh rebukes by the likes of the Sierra Club. It’s not surprising that these and other parties differ on the Center’s potential for improving how the industry manages the myriad risks involved in hydraulic fracturing, aka, fracking.

The Washington Post opined soon after the announcement that  “the right path was never to let drillers continue without more oversight, nor was it to ban fracking. America’s natural gas boom is far too important an opportunity — economic and environmental — to ignore. But sound regulations are needed to ensure that it is not an ecological disaster. These new rules are a large step toward striking the right balance, and everyone involved deserves credit.”

Some media reports such as this one in the Dallas Morning News suggested the idea of peace between environmentalists and energy companies threatens extremists on both sides of the fracking debate. “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 to the News. Shellenberger is not a part of the shale partnership, but said he supports the idea.

A quick study of the principal critiques since the announcement convinces me the CSSD represents a serious attempt toward making fracking safer, cleaner and therefore sustainable for affected landowners and their states’ economies.  Without it, all stakeholders involved would be left to their own devices while horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing continue to surge ahead with varying levels of oversight.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The Center still has a lot of work — and explaining — to do.

Will The Promised Integrity of the Process Hold Up?

One of the most revealing assessments of the Center’s potential — and the tall hurdles that remain — came from a leader of the premier environmental group involved, the Environmental Defense Fund’s top natural gas policy analyst, Mark Brownstein:

“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 which is located in the Appalachian Basin).

“Perhaps the constructive working relationship we’ve developed with the companies participating in CSSD,” Brownstein wrote, “is that it can “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 operative word, Brownstein acknowledged,  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.”

Scroll down from Brownstein’s explanation and you’ll see several current and former EDF supporters crying foul, like this one from “Brian Brock:  . . . 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.”

Read Tom Wilber’s “Shale Gas Review” at TomWilber.blogspot.com

Tom Wilber, who writes the “Shale Gas Review” blog and speaks about the shale gas boom throughout New York state and Appalachia, is one of the most informed and objective commentators on the subject. Stepping through the Center’s claims of “unprecedented collaboration” and “constructive engagement,” he chronicled his effort to decipher some of the 15 standards. Here’s an excerpt:

“Some standards were more sophisticated. Some were not. Performance Standard No. 2 stated that the industry should recycle waste water ‘to the maximum extent possible’ until a standard is set next year.  A theme throughout seemed to be a lack of critical definitions – such as what precisely ‘recycling’ is.

“Searching for a point of clarity, I turned to an issue that, in my mind, would be a decisive test of how sincere this whole effort was, and whether my feeling of creeping skepticism was justified. Would the CSSD’s ‘rigorous performance standards’ require operators to fully disclose fracking compounds?

“The answer, I found in Performance Standard No. 7, is yes: ‘Operators will publicly disclose the chemical constituents intentionally used in well stimulation fluids.’  Followed by a no: ‘If an operator, service company or vendor claims that the identity of a chemical ingredient is entitled to trade secret protection, the operator will include in its disclosures a notation that trade secret protection has been asserted and will instead disclose the relevant chemical family name.‘ ”

What About the Certification Process?

As for a certification process that is to come, the Center’s web site, for now, only declares its aspirations:

“The certification process, including a plan for comprehensive third-party auditing, is currently in development. It is expected that energy companies may begin applying for standard certification later in 2013.

“For a company wishing to achieve certification, an independent audit firm – which has met qualifications set by CSSD – will be retained to evaluate the company’s practices against the CSSD standards. The outcome of the audit may be Certified, Certified with Conditions, or Not Certified. Certified with Conditions will be granted where only minor deviations from the standard are present and corrections must be made within 90 days.”

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