Environment
3:41 pm
Sun March 24, 2013

Environmentalists, Drillers Reach 'Truce' For Fracking Standards

Originally published on Thu March 21, 2013 6:47 pm

A group of environmentalists and drilling companies has crafted a truce of sorts over the rapid spread of natural gas production in the Appalachian Basin. Four major drilling companies and several environmental groups have agreed on 15 voluntary standards for cleaner drilling practices.

The practices of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing — when companies inject water laced with chemicals deep underground to split open rock formations and get the gas to flow faster — are transforming the rural region in the Eastern U.S. into a sprawling industrial zone.

"It's quite frankly a game changer for the nation in terms of energy supply, and that's drawn to it a lot of attention," says Bruce Niemeyer, head of Chevron's Appalachia unit. "In order to realize the benefits in the long term, as an industry we need to go about development in a responsible way."

But many environmental groups have complained that the companies have contaminated the air and water.

Certification Process

Chevron hopes to put an end to those claims. Chevron and Shell are among the four major drilling companies that have worked on the standards for two years with an assortment of environmental groups.

The idea is that drilling companies will agree to be audited. Independent experts will visit their operations and determine if they are complying with the new standards.

"It's equivalent to an accounting firm auditing a company or an individual's accounts," says Andrew Place, the director of energy and environmental policy at EQT Corp., another big drilling company that is participating in the standards.

Place says he knows a certification process like this can help allay landowners' fears, because he owns a farm in western Pennsylvania close to drilling operations.

"It matters to me that I have independent corroboration that these procedures are being done around us in a safe manner that I can have assurance of," Place says.

'Some Missed Opportunities'

But just how rigorous are these standards? Some of them accelerate the adoption of cleaner practices; others borrow protective rules from one state and apply them across the multistate region; and some move up deadlines that have already been set by the federal government.

"The new standards are a mix of what's already being done, some positive new advances and, I think, a few missed opportunities," says Rob Jackson, an environmental scientist at Duke University who studies the effects of the natural gas industry in Pennsylvania.

Jackson says that for water, the standards are pretty good. The industry uses vast quantities of water, and the standards set a target for recycling 90 percent of it. That will reduce the amount of freshwater the industry uses and how much dirty water it needs to get rid of.

The standards also would prohibit the discharge of dirty water into streams. Any wastewater would have to be injected into the ground in deep wells.

But Jackson says he is disappointed that standards don't include requirements to measure the air pollution that is pumped out from wells and equipment.

"If a compound — a chemical like benzene or toluene — drifts downwind into where people live and into the air they breathe, it could have health consequences, and we need more information about that," Jackson says.

Some environmental groups are skeptical about the effort because the standards are voluntary and, so far, only a handful of drilling companies have agreed to the deal.

"We're very dubious that everybody would sign up," says Kate Sinding, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "This is an industry that, for the most part, has shown itself not to be trustworthy.

"And so certification standards are nice, but they're no substitute for real enforceable rules and regulations at the federal level and the state level."

'Jury Is Out'

Mark Brownstein represents Environmental Defense Fund, one of the groups involved in the new voluntary standards. He says "the jury is out" on how many companies will agree to audits, and whether the standards will effectively safeguard the air and water.

But, he says, hydraulic fracturing is happening across the country, so it's urgent to change the culture inside the industry so that it better protects public health and safety.

"The question at the end of the day is not whether you like fracking or don't like fracking," Brownstein says. "The real question is, if it's going to be done, are there ways to make sure that it's done properly? And we think that there are."

The first audits of cleaner fracking are expected by the end of the year.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

You are listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

Some environmentalists and energy companies have crafted a truce when it comes to natural gas development. They had been at each other's throats in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia over the boom in hydraulic fracturing.

Now, as NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports, they've agreed on standards for cleaner fracking.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN, BYLINE: Horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing are transforming the rural Appalachian Basin into a sprawling industrial zone.

BRUCE NIEMEYER: It's, quite frankly, a game changer for the nation in terms of energy supply, and it's drawn to it, you know, a lot of attention.

SHOGREN: Bruce Niemeyer is president of Chevron's Appalachian unit.

NIEMEYER: In order to realize the benefits in the long term, as an industry, we need to go about development in a responsible way.

SHOGREN: Many environmental groups have been complaining that's not what the companies have been doing. They accuse drilling companies of poisoning the air and water. Chevron hopes to put an end to those claims. Chevron and Shell are among the four major drilling companies that have been working for two years with an assortment of environmental groups. They've hammered out 15 different standards for protecting the air and water in the region while all this drilling is going on.

Andrew Place is corporate director of energy and environmental policy at EQT Corporation, another big drilling company in the region. Place says the idea is that companies like his will be audited to see if they're complying with the new standards.

ANDREW PLACE: It's equivalent to an accounting firm auditing a company or an individual account.

SHOGREN: Place says he knows it can help allay landowners' fears because he owns a farm in western Pennsylvania, close to drilling operations.

PLACE: It matters to me that I have independent corroboration that these procedures are being done around us in a safe manner that I can have assurance of.

SHOGREN: Just how rigorous are these standards, I asked Rob Jackson, an environmental scientist at Duke University who's been studying the impacts of the natural gas industry in Pennsylvania.

ROB JACKSON: The new standards are a mix of what's already being done, some positive new advances and I think a few missed opportunities.

SHOGREN: For example, these industries use vast quantities of water, and Jackson says it's great that the standards set targets for recycling 90 percent of this water. That will reduce how much freshwater the industry uses and how much dirty water it needs to get rid of. But he's disappointed that the standards don't include requirements to measure the air pollution that's pumped out from wells and equipment.

JACKSON: If a compound, a chemical like benzene or toluene, drifts downwind into where people live and into the air they breathe, it could have health consequences, and we need more information about that.

SHOGREN: Some environmental groups are skeptical.

KATE SINDING: We're very dubious that everybody would sign up.

SHOGREN: That's Kate Sinding, an attorney for Natural Resources Defense Council. So far, only a handful of drilling companies have agreed to the deal.

SINDING: This is an industry that for the most part has shown itself not to be trustworthy, and so certification standards are nice, but they're no substitute for real enforceable rules and regulations at the federal level and the state level.

SHOGREN: Mark Brownstein represents Environmental Defense Fund, one of the groups involved in the new voluntary standards. He says the jury is out on whether the standards will safeguard the air and the water, but he says hydraulic fracturing is happening across the country.

MARK BROWNSTEIN: And so the question at the end of the day is not whether you like fracking or don't like fracking. The real question is, if it's going to be done, are there ways to make sure that it's done properly? And we think that there are.

SHOGREN: The first audits of cleaner fracking are expected by the end of the year. Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.