Saturday, April 6, 2013

Sustainable shale development… hype, hope or hoax? CSSD “standards” reflect chronic transparency problem

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, 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.

Many in environmental academic and policy circles, both grass roots and institutional, were buzzing. But not everybody was displeased and some influential voices supported the plan. Among them John Hanger, former Secretary for Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Conservation and now an early candidate for the 2014 Pennsylvania gubernatorial race. Hanger characterized the CSSD standards as a “game changing event” that will do for shale gas operators what sustainable certification program did for loggers:

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.


  1. Tom your post here is an essential read. If I could figure out social media, it would spread throughout the internet like, well, any of thousands of memes that do.

    I may comment several times, since I did a skim through - if that would be alright.

    Here's the first wagon of poop by the report's author:

    “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”

    I have absolutely no basis for this statement and would love to be told it's false, but here it is: the reason for NGOs like EDF and family trust foundations like Heinz are involved in shale gas development is to keep wealthy families and their trusts away from being named a potentially responsible party (PRP) under CERCLA (or Superfund). Forget RCRA, CAA, CWA and SDWA - those pieces of legislation are already pointless since the momentum for fracking is too great. Shale oil and gas is already showing damage to the environment and to an extent that involves area wide remediation and mitigation. More and more will come, whether in dribs and drabs or one fell swoop.

    Or wealth families like the Rockefellers, Walmarts and Heinz and others really have a soft spot for the environment and public health. And given their higher level of understanding of all things subsurface protection and remediation and climate change, it is essential to bypass the USEPA and State agencies to broker this deal.

  2. Great post, Tom, and thank you for doing what many others reporting on this issue have failed to do--i.e. actually reading and reporting on the proposed standards instead of relying just on the news release from EDF.

    The standards are vague, inadequate, and essentially worthless because they are voluntary. As you noted, the standards would allow industry to keep some of the fracking fluid ingredients secret. Revealing, in detail, what substances are being used in the fracking fluid is one of the most basic requirements of anyone who is serious about making shale gas extraction less dangerous, yet in these purely voluntary standards the CSSD has failed to meet even this very basic requirement. This is very telling.

    I have to wonder if EDF even bothered to meet with any of the small grassroots groups in NY and PA that oppose fracking and/or want stricter regulation. I also have to wonder if EDF even bothered to sit down with any of the families in PA who have already been harmed by shale gas operations. I asked Mark Brownstein (leader of EDF's team on natural gas) about this on his blog and he did not provide any answers. Nor did he explain the ludicrous use of the word "sustainable" in the Center for Sustainable Shale Development's name. Here's the link to Mr. Brownstein's blog entry on the CSSD:

    One question I have about this whole scheme is what is to prevent a gas company from getting itself certified, using the certification to convince many, many people to sign leases, and then ignoring the certification standards as soon as the ink on the leases is dry? Without meaningful penalties and the force of law behind these standards, what good are they? It seems to me that by providing cover to the industry, these standards could end up doing more harm than good. Either EDF gets this--which means they are knowingly helping to provide cover to the industry--or else they are incredibly, hopelessly naive. I'm going to go with the former: I think that EDF may be 1) influenced by donors, and 2) may be unwilling to admit that it made a mistake in endorsing shale gas. Either way, I am extremely glad that I stopped donating to EDF a couple of years ago, and I have no intention of ever donating to them again.

  3. If there is anything to learn from the long and dirty history of petroleum extraction, it is that the industry does nothing without being required to. For example, while Performance Standard No. 7 states: Operators will not use diesel fuel in their hydraulic fracturing fluids, diesel is already banned from use in frac fluids by federal Energy Policy Act of 2005. Despite this,some of the industry continues to use it,stating that because the EPA has never written the implementing regulations (including a definition of diesel), they are not breaking the law. These standards have loopholes that are large enough to drive frac trucks through.

    Industry likes lists of best practices such as these because they require nothing of them. Better still industry can use best practices to deflect real regulations.

    It is not clear what EDF has gain from these voluntary performance standards other than an excuse for wishful thinking.

    1. Correct. Denatured alcohol comes to mind. Diesel is just a range of hydrocarbons based on distillation temperature and pressure (cut). Similar hydrocarbons could be collected and blended and not be called a fuel, but an ingredient.

    2. OMG! I just thought of something. Motor fuel like gasoline and diesel fall under state leaking underground storage tank (LUST) programs. The feds put together the legislation in 1986, for states to develop its own programs.

      This pulled out much of the infrastructure of petroleum transportation fuels out of RCRA and if necessary CERCLA, allowing for individual states to monitor its own programs. I don't think the environment was the sole concern of diesel use in fracking operations.

  4. "new" and "voluntary" agreements are actually SO-SO (same old same old). Too much spin, too little real action. And media must stop using the super-easy label "environmentalists" to refer to:
    landowners who are members of a coalition but want safe water;
    people who want to see more corporate accountability;
    people who want to see more regulatory oversight;
    people who want to drink clean water & breathe clean air;
    health professionals concerned about health impacts;
    landowners concerned about how gas activity on their neighbor's land may impact their air, water & property value;
    farmers concerned about providing healthy food for people;
    farmers concerned about health of their livestock & poultry...
    admittedly, all of these people are "environmentalists" but would probably chafe at being tossed into the same label as Sierra Club or EDF or any other group that has an agenda. For some groups espousing their enviro-credentials, their agenda seems to be promoting the very industry that would despoil the environment they claim to be protecting.

    1. I agree. And I wish the mainstream media would acknowledge this fact. How many people are there who are happy to breathe badly polluted air and drink badly polluted water--or who want their children exposed to pollutants? Anyone who cares about any of this is an environmentalist.

      Too often, large environmental groups treat the word "environment" as if it applies only to "special" places--i.e. those few places that are pristine (or as close to pristine as a place can be in today's world). This tactic allows them to include a lot of cute pictures of polar bears in their fundraising letters, but it has undercut the crucial message that the environment is all around us, in our own neighborhoods, and if we don't respect it and care for it we will end up without any safe places left to live.

      The large environmental groups were not at the leading edge of the fracking fight--the real action has been and continues to be at the local level (although the national Sierra Club seems to be catching up faster than I would have imagined just a couple of years ago). Fracking has brought the environmental movement down to the grassroots level and back to our own backyards. It's a very sad way to have that happen, but maybe it's something of a silver lining in a very dark cloud.

  5. This all makes me wonder how the much publicized "Gessinger Study" will be useful if it is so difficult to get information about the content of fracking fluids and other necessary health related shale gas industry data in Pennsylvania? Will that study only be a step in the right direction without any health and safety related useful information?

    1. I think a really important point to remember about the Geisinger study is that it will not be completed for 20 years. Meanwhile, the fracking continues.

      It's as if we've forgotten everything we've learned over the last 40-50 years about the connection between the environment and human health. When something raises as many red flags as fracking raises, extreme caution is called for.

  6. is the hiding behind trade secrets scheme to hide the fact that they're using chemicals that would otherwise have to be disposed of under strict rules, ie, illegally dumping chemicals, sorta killing two birds with one stone so to speak? Or just purely to hide how dangerous and toxic those chemicals really are?

    1. Both. It all begins with disclosure. The government can’t regulate chemicals without knowing what they are. So the federal exemption from the Safe Drinking Water Act helps the well service companies by ensuring that this information is kept off the books and hence, out of the regs.