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Reducing the Shale Gas Footprint Through the Center for Sustainable Shale Development: A Good Start, But No Substitute for Tight Federal and State Regulation

March 22, 2013

This week, CATF joined three Pennsylvania environmental organizations – the Pittsburgh-area  Group against Smog and Pollution, the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, and Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future, as well as the Environmental Defense Fund, in endorsing a set of fifteen water and air protection standards we developed with several large shale gas producers in the Marcellus region: Chevron, Shell, EQT and CONSOL. Also endorsing the standards were the Pittsburgh-based Heinz Endowments, the William Penn Foundation, and several independent parties, including former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, former EPA head Christie Whitman, Carnegie Mellon University President Jared Cohon, and Jane Long, an academic expert on climate and subsurface risk management.

These standards were the result of two years of intense negotiation, including independent research and outside assistance from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and ICF International, both world experts on oil and gas environmental risk management that frequently advise the US government.  We believe they are the toughest such standards anywhere on the planet, and much more stringent than current federal law. Notable features of the new standards:

  • A complete ban on discharge of water used in fracking to surface waters unless and until a safe discharge standard can be developed;
  • A 90% water recycling requirement;
  • A requirement that all drilling fluid be closed-loop;
  • A requirement that drillers, prior to drilling, conduct a full geologic characterization and risk analysis of the area in which the are drilling to demonstrate adequate layers to contain any drilling fluid migration;
  • A requirement that groundwater in the drilling area be monitored, to demonstrate no impact on groundwater, for one year after well completion, and on an ongoing basis if necessary;
  • A tight well casing standard to prevent fluid leaks;
  • A requirement that all wells in production have zero discharge of gas to the air, instead diverting it into a pipeline;
  • In circumstances where the gas cannot be put into a pipeline, flaring is limited in time, and must meet high efficiency standards;
  • Tight air emission standards for all diesel engines used in drilling equipment and any trucks servicing a site.

The implementation of the standards will be overseen by the Board of Directors of the Center for Sustainable Shale Development (CSSD) – which has two-thirds representation from environmental groups and other non-industry parties. Auditing of driller performance will be overseen by independent third party firms under the Board’s direction, on the model of the Forest Stewardship Council and the LEED certification process for green buildings.  Moreover, the CSSD is committed to revise standards as technology develops and understanding improves.

CATF joined in developing and endorsing these standards because it is our mission to protect the atmosphere from harmful air pollution and climate change. We believe CSSD and these standards will advance that mission by setting a tight, and continuously improving, standard of industry of conduct, independently verified by outside auditors.

At the same time, we do not believe voluntary standards like these are a substitute for state and federal regulation, or a reason for government inaction.  As we said in the CCSD announcement, “[W]e believe …the standards should also serve as a model for national policy and practice.” In fact, CATF is presently challenging US EPA’s failure to regulate oil and gas emissions sufficiently.

To the contrary, we think the fact that four major oil and gas industry players have agreed to tough standards for air and water – even though federal law currently forbids EPA regulation of water contamination from fracking – destroys the rationale by some in the oil and gas industry that such standards can’t be enforced at the federal level. If these producers can meet tough standards, everyone can. And if they can’t, they shouldn’t be drilling – it’s that simple.

CATF is aware that many environmental organizations oppose unconventional gas development, in part on the theory that more gas leads to greater air pollution and global warming.  We have been quite clear that simply burning natural gas to produce power produces unacceptably high carbon emissions and should be accompanied by carbon capture and storage to reduce carbon emissions to near-zero. The technology to do so has been commercially demonstrated and used around the world and should be mandated by federal law.  At the same time, fossil fuels, which supply nearly 90% of the planet’s energy, are not going away any time soon, and so CATF believes that reality has to be faced and their extraction and use must be accompanied by the tightest emission controls.  That’s why we think CSSD and other similar voluntary standard-setting efforts are an important step forward, but far from sufficient, to address global emissions

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