Some Foes of Fracking Reach Out to Drillers on Safety

US-Energy-Gas-Environment Workers change pipes at Consol Energy Horizontal Gas Drilling Rig exploring the Marcellus Shale outside the town of Waynesburg, PA on April 13, 2012. It is estimated that more than 500 trillion cubic feet of shale gas is contained in this stretch of rock that runs through parts of Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio and West Virginia. Shale gas is natural gas stored deep underground in fine-grained sedimentary rocks. It can be extracted using a process known as hydraulic fracturing "“ or 'fracking' "“ which involves drilling long horizontal wells in shale rocks more than a kilometre below the surface. Massive quantities of water, sand and chemicals are pumped into the wells at high pressure. This opens up fissures in the shale, which are held open by the sand, enabling the trapped gas to escape to the surface for collection. 
National Journal
Clare Foran
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Clare Foran
Oct. 8, 2013, 5:38 p.m.

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.”

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