PITTSBURGH – 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 that could lead to a major expansion of drilling.
The program announced Wednesday will work a lot like Underwriters Laboratories, which puts its familiar UL seal of approval on electrical appliances that meet its standards.
In this case, drilling and pipeline companies will be encouraged to submit to an independent review of their operations. If they are found to be abiding by a list of stringent measures to protect the air and water from pollution, they will receive the blessing of the new Pittsburgh-based Center for Sustainable Shale Development, created by environmentalists and the energy industry.
Many of the new standards appear to be stricter than state and federal regulations.
If the project wins wide acceptance, it could ease or avert some of the ferocious battles over fracking that have been waged in statehouses and city halls. And it could hasten the expansion of fracking by making drilling more acceptable to states and communities that feared the environmental consequences.
Shell Oil Vice President Paul Goodfellow said this is the first time the company and environmental groups have reached agreement to create an entire system for reducing the effects of shale drilling.
“This is a bit of a unique coming-together of a variety of different interests,” said Bruce Niemeyer, president of Chevron Appalachia.
In agreeing to the self-policing system, members of the industry said they realized they needed to do more to reassure the public about the safety of fracking. On the other side, environmentalists said they came to the conclusion that the hundreds of billions of dollars in oil and gas underground is going to be extracted one way or another and that working with the industry is the quickest path to making the process safer.
“We do recognize that this resource is going to be developed,” said Robert Vagt, president of the Heinz Endowments, a charitable foundation that has bankrolled anti-fracking efforts. “We think that it can be done in a way that does not do violence to the environment.”
In addition to Shell and Chevron, the participants include the Environmental Defense Fund, the Clean Air Task Force, EQT Corp., Consol Energy and the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, and the organizers hope to recruit others.
The new standards include limits on emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and the burning off of unwanted gas; reductions in engine emissions; groundwater monitoring and protection; improved well designs; stricter wastewater disposal; the use of less toxic fracking fluids; and seismic monitoring before drilling begins.
For example, the plan requires companies to recycle 90 percent of their wastewater and to check water supplies around a well for pollution for a year after drilling is completed.
The project will cover Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio — where a frenzy of drilling is under way in the huge, gas-rich Marcellus and Utica Shale formations — as well as New York and other states in the East that have put a hold on new drilling.
During fracking, large volumes of water, along with sand and hazardous chemicals, are injected into the ground to break rock apart and free the oil and gas. In some places, the practice has been blamed for air pollution and gas leaks that have ruined well water.
The Pittsburgh project will be overseen by a 12-member board with four seats for environmentalists, four for industry and four for independent figures, including former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill and Christine Todd Whitman, the former Environmental Protection Agency chief.