By LEE MURRAY
The proposed gas-drilling certification process created by a partnership of the fracking industry and regional environmental groups is getting harsh criticism from grass-roots activists throughout Pennsylvania and Ohio.
The newly formed Center for Sustainable Shale Development, based in Pittsburgh, announced March 20 that it will create a testing and certification program to codify industry “best practices” and hold fracking companies to a high standard to protect communities from environmental damage.
Anti-fracking groups, however, are suspicious of the new collaboration, and many question the CSSD’s legitimacy.
“This is a publicity stunt,” said Gloia Forouzan of Lawrenceville, Pa. She has spent two years fighting the fracking industry in her hometown and throughout Pennsylvania through Marcellus Shale Protest, a collective of like-minded residents who want to see theprocess banned. The group doesn’t have a spokesperson or leader.
“It’s a way for the drilling companies to make themselves a little bit more appealing to the general public,” Forouzan said. “Their PR has not worked until now, so they’re trying a different approach.”
The CSSD is a voluntary collaboration among some very unlikely bedfellows: the fracking industry, philanthropists and environmental groups. Industry giants Shell and Chevron have teamed up with Heinz Endowments, which led the collaboration, and several smaller environmental organizations to certify standards in drilling in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia. Drilling companies would apply for certification, pay $30,000 and, if they pass muster, receive certification for current and future drilling. The CSSD reported an operating budget of $800,000. Funds will come partly from industry and partly from philanthropy. Companies will be able to apply for certification later in 2013.
“These guys are going to want to look like they have some kind of endorsement, some kind of self-regulation, some kind of best-practices,” said Jean Engle of Frack Free Mahoning Valley, an anti-fracking group based in Youngstown. “But the people who are actually concerned about the effects are just not buying it.”
John Dettweiler, a Pennsylvania resident who blogs at marcellusprotest.org, also criticized the announcement.
“I look at it as putting lipstick on a pig,” said Dettweiler. “It’s a public relations move by industry in that it doesn’t really change anything.”
The backlash from anti-fracking groups is to be expected. Although the environmental groups involved in the CSSD have been on the same side of the fence as those groups on some issues, the focus of those that now sit alongside Chevron and Shell has always been regulation.
George Jugovic, president of PennFuture, was one of the founding participants that drafted the set of standards. His group was concerned with protecting the environment and creating jobs for Pennsylvanians.
“It’s one thing for organizations to stand on the outside and sort of wag their switch at someone and tell them they can do better,” said Jugovic, “but to have industry leaders say that to other companies, in that space, who are engaging in similar conduct … it speaks loudly. Perhaps more loudly than someone yelling from the outside in.”
It’s tempting to compare this collaboration with recent developments in Illinois. The CSSD’s announcement came just weeks after Illinois saw industry and environmental groups draft a set of standards that will, if approved by lawmakers, become enforceable regulations.
Membership, participation and certification through the CSSD is voluntary. The voluntary nature of the collaboration is a concern for Teresa Mills, co-founder of No Frack Ohio, based in Columbus.
“It’s ridiculous,” Mills said. “Once they get their little certificate, there’s nothing legally binding in it. We’ve all seen how voluntary measures work. They don’t. Unless something is in law, there is no teeth behind it.”
Dettweiler said that the standards would be easy for industry to meet and the proposed 15-point set of standards was not enough to cover the whole process.
“It’s not going to cost the industry anything to meet [these standards],” Dettweiler said. “What they’ve done is they’re codifying what they would regard as best industry practice right now. The document is filled with things like ‘as much as possible’ or ‘as much as practical.’ They’ve taken what they know how to do, and are getting a stamp of approval for what they know how to do.”
The list of performance standards includes provisions for wastewater assessment, stating a “goal of zero contamination of fresh groundwater and surface waters.” The list also includes requirements for air-quality testing and imposes limits on “flaring,” a procedure in which excess gas is burned off at the drilling site.
“I am skeptical of the testing process,” said Timothy Raridon of Youngstown. Raridon spent years as a Greenpeace staff member in Chicago before he started working with Frack Free Mahoning Valley.
“Who’s going to pay the regulators to go to every well to fulfill the testing needed? What are they going to be allowed to know about the substances used, that only the EPA are allowed to know about?” Raridon said.
The Illinois deal has attracted vocal criticism, too. The charge from anti-fracking groups there is that collaborations such as these give the impression that the continuation of fracking is inevitable.
Dettweiler has the same concerns.
“There’s no suggestion that they would not drill, or slow down their drilling,” he said, “or change their basic business model because of anything they can’t put a standard on.”
Dettweiler said it was “disappointing” to see environmental groups involved in an “industry-led initiative.” Mills echoed that sentiment, adding that some of the groups listed had no regional interests.
“I see that the Environmental Defense Fund is listed,” Mills said. “They don’t have an office here in Ohio … one of our members told EDF to go back to Washington, that we didn’t want them here.
“The industry may think this is going to pacify us. It’s not going to pacify us. [We] will not change what we’re doing. We still believe that Ohio should not be the toilet for the fracking industry.”
TheNewsOutlet.org is a collaborative effort among the Youngstown State University journalism program, Kent State University, University of Akron and professional media outlets including, WYSU-FM Radio and The Vindicator, The Beacon Journal and Rubber City Radio, both of Akron.