The U.S. is on track this year to become the world's largest oil and natural-gas producer, a feat it will achieve in no small part due to the proliferation of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing.
The oil and gas industry sees fracking as a way to foster U.S. energy independence and spur economic growth. Hard-line environmentalists, on the other hand, decry the technology as a public health hazard, citing reports of contaminated air and drinking water as a reason to ban it altogether.
As the technology becomes entrenched in the U.S. energy landscape, however, some environmental advocates are taking a more moderate stance by seeking to engage, rather than alienate, the oil and gas industry. Can this strategy get results?
Breathe Easy Susquehanna County, a grassroots citizens' advocacy organization in Pennsylvania, is betting it can. The group represents a diverse set of stakeholders, including drilling advocates and individuals who support a moratorium on fracking. Somehow, they're managing to work together.
"We can sit here and argue over whether fracking should stop, but that's a moot point — it's happening," Rebecca Roter, the chairwoman of BESC, told National Journal Daily. "And the collective reality is, we're all experiencing the same impacts so we need to work together."
BESC wants drillers to better control greenhouse-gas and chemical emissions from fracking and has organized meetings with representatives from energy companies operating wells in the area. Nothing concrete has emerged from these talks, but Roter said she's encouraged that the conversation is happening at all. "This is a process," Roter said. "But the fact that the industry is having a dialogue with us is amazing."
The Center for Sustainable Shale Development is similarly attempting to broker compromise. CSSD is a nonprofit based in Pittsburgh, and it's made up of partner organizations ranging from Chevron and Shell to the Environmental Defense Fund. In March, the organization released a set of performance standards for the oil and natural-gas industry, and companies that voluntarily adopt them will begin using the new criteria this fall.
"We feel we've created a true partnership where we've shown that the industry and the environmental community can be equal partners and can write standards that are not only protective of the environment but also benefit the firms and the communities in which they are operating in," said Andrew Place, interim executive director of CSSD.
Some environmental advocates are skeptical, however, that these efforts will bring lasting change.
"While voluntary programs like that of the Center for Sustainable Shale Development have the potential to help raise standards for companies that participate, they do not eliminate the need for legally binding, enforceable federal and state rules that apply to every oil and gas company engaged in fracking, across the board," said Kate Kiely of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "If the oil and gas industry want to get serious about protecting people and communities, it must stop fighting these at every turn."
Other environmentalists emphasize that what works at a local level may not be suited to a national platform. "There is a difference between an organization like BESC that is working as hard as it can to protect the immediate health of their community by employing whatever strategy they can and the kind of stance a large national organization might take," said Erika Staaf, a clean-water advocate with Penn Environment, part of a coalition of state-based groups called Environment America, which nationally advocates a ban on fracking.
"Could it work on a national level? I see it as a much more valid strategy on a hyper-local level. But we don't see calling for a ban on fracking and supporting smaller, more-piecemeal efforts to protect the environment as mutually exclusive."