We learned last month from the Associated Press that “Energy firms, environmental groups agree on tough new fracking standards.” Specifically, the report by Kevin Begos characterized these standards as a breakthrough, a product of “an unlikely partnership between longtime adversaries” once at odds over assessing merits and risks of shale gas development. The reconciled parties include the Environmental Defense Fund, the Heinz Endowments, and a group called “Clean Air Task Force” representing environmental interests, and Shell, Chevron and others representing industry.
The group established 15 voluntary “performance standards” that operators can follow to attain certification -- and an implicit stamp of approval for consumers. The standards range from the best way to case a well to least harmful waste disposal practices. Compliance will be self-reported and subject to audits from the sanctioning body -- a recently formed agency called the Center for Sustainable Shale Development made up of representatives from industry, environmental groups and independent stakeholders.
This was a story worth checking into. My search for what exactly the standards said took me to the CSSD website. Those who don’t like a lot of packaging with their policy information, beware. If you go here, you will spend a few minutes navigating pages of vague preamble about “unprecedented collaboration”, “constructive engagement”, “rigorous performance standards” and “commitment of various strategic partners ensuring safe and environmentally responsible development of our abundant shale resources,” along with carousel billboards of fern-lined trout streams and primary-colored drilling rigs. With some clicking and negotiation, I came upon an outline of the standards themselves, and learned quickly where the bar was set. Here are a few examples:
Performance Standard No. 7 states:
Operators will not use diesel fuel in their hydraulic fracturing fluids
Performance Standard No. 8 states:
In the event of spill or release, beyond the well pad, Operators shall immediately provide notification to the local governing body and any affected landowner.
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 publically 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.
Note: The difference between knowing a specific compound rather than a general family can be huge in assessing exposure impacts to health and ecology. And the company can invoke the “trade secret” clause for just about anything.
And then came another qualification:
Operators will implement measures consistent with state law to assist medical professionals in quickly obtaining trade secret information from the operator, service company or vendor holding the trade secret that may be needed for clinical diagnosis or treatment purposes.
There was no explanation in the rules or anywhere on the CSSD website for that matter that, Under a law enacted by the Corbett administration in Pennsylvania, doctors cannot get the name of a fracking compound in an exposure case, even in an emergency, without first signing a contract that forbids them to share the information with anybody.
These, then, are the kinds of standards the oil and gas industry are aspiring to. Something that takes the guise of transparency dressed up on a green-looking website, with broad loopholes and no practical enforcement mechanism.
And in our country, the industry is understood to be better regulated than anyplace else in the world – a claim that has some credibility. Yet I saw nothing in the CSSD template that spoke to the monumental weaknesses in industry oversight – lack of regional planning for waste disposal and water consumption and other impacts, and exemptions from federal hazardous waste disposal and disclosure laws that allow the industry to operate with one foot in the pre-regulatory era.
So why are the EDF and the Heinz Foundation on board? The answer seems to be, it’s a start, and that in itself is something of an achievement.
“This coalition is a step in the right direction to better protect the quality of life for people living among the gas fields,” Mark Brownstein wrote in defense of the program after it received anticipated backlash from environmental groups representing both mainstream organizations and grass roots activists. Brownstein, Vice President & Chief Counsel of the US Energy and Climate Program at Environmental Defense Fund, was instrumental in arranging the CSSD collaboration, and he felt obligated to defend the program under attack with some points not mentioned on the CSSD web site. The organization’s voluntary standards are no substitute for the real thing, he stressed.
“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…
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 agency is “committed to setting clear guidelines for a rigorous certification and auditing process,” he said. (The CSSD is yet to release any specifics about how that will work.) “The operative word is ‘can,’ Brownstein concluded. “Time will tell how effective this effort is, and whether it can or should to be replicated elsewhere.”
There are other factors at work. Last year the EDF received a three-year, $6-million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies to “minimize the environmental impacts of natural gas operations through hydraulic fracturing,” according to an agency press release at the time. The funding is to “support EDF’s strategy of securing strong rules and developing industry best practices in the 14 states with 85 percent of the country’s unconventional gas reserves.” The charity is tied to its name sake, billionaire philanthropist Michael Bloomberg, who also happens to be the mayor of New York City, one of the largest energy consumers in the world.
Representatives from mainstream environmental groups were quick to distance themselves from the EDF’s involvement with the CSSD. Deb Nardone, Director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Natural Gas Campaign, felt it necessary to reiterate that the Sierra Club “had no involvement” with the project:
Voluntary certification is in no way a substitute for rigorous safeguards, monitoring, and enforcement. Voluntary safety certification is akin to slapping a band aid on a gaping wound. We know the oil and gas industry cannot be trusted to police itself and we cannot afford to give a free pass to bad actors in the industry.
Sandy Buchanan, Executive Director of a group called Ohio Citizen Action, brought another perspective:
This is not a conflict between oil and gas companies and “environmentalists.” The drillers are up against landowners, neighbors, and taxpayers; people who drink municipal water, people who drink well-water; doctors, nurses, firefighters, EMS technicians, and so on. To portray this as just “environmentalists” makes it seem as though it is just two special interest groups at odds. It sets up a situation where one or more groups with the word “Environment” in their name think they can cut a deal with the drillers.
Criticism, ranging from harsh to caustic, focused on the title of the program as evidence of a sham. Is there really such a thing as sustainable shale gas development? Certainly not in the way the word sustainable is understood (and revered) in the environmental community. Dory Hippauf, a blogger on Shaleshockmedia.org, wrote “Fracking Center and Fluffy Kittens.”
WHOOO-HOOO, Frackers and Environmentalists collaborate! At least that’s the headlines and spin from the natural gas PR people and the media echo chamber.
What does this new collaboration have to do with fluffy kittens? Not much.
What does this new collaboration have to do with addressing the real issue of fracking? Not much.
This new collaboration is called the Center for Sustainable Shale Development (CSSD). NOTE: SUSTAINABLE SHALE DEVELOPMENT.
Consumer preferences and this powerful market demand means that smart gas producers will join Consol, Equitable, Shell, and Consol in improving their gas production operations so that they can earn CSSD certification. Whether gas producers like CSSD or not, CSSD just changed fundamentally their business world by empowering consumers to decide what gas they will buy and what gas they will not.
Maybe so, but Hanger did not explain that, unlike natural gas, forest products are genuinely a sustainable resource.
I will end here with my two cents. Performance standards are well and good. “Best practices” are something every industry should and often does strive for. But the very fact that a vague plan by the gas and oil industry to establish baseline standards becomes big news tells us something about the gas and oil industry. Beyond that, the Madison Avenue packaging and presentation of the new CSSD standards reflects a chronic problem with the industry: It’s short on policy and long on pitch.