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PITTSBURGH -- In an unlikely partnership between longtime adversaries, some of the nation's biggest energy companies and environmental groups have agreed on a voluntary set of standards for gas and oil fracking in the Northeast that appear to go further than existing state and federal pollution regulations.
The program announced Wednesday will work a lot like Underwriters Laboratories, which puts its UL seal of approval on electrical appliances that meet its standards. In this case, drilling and pipeline companies will be encouraged to submit to an independent review of their operations, and if they are found to be taking certain steps to protect the air and water, they will receive the blessing of the brand-new Pittsburgh-based Center for Sustainable Shale Development.
If the project succeeds, it could have far-reaching implications for both the industry and environmental groups. A nationwide boom in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has unleashed huge new energy reserves but also led to fears of pollution and climate change.
Shell Oil Vice President Paul Goodfellow said this is the first time the company and environmental groups have reached agreement to create an entire system for reducing the effects of shale drilling.
"This is something new," said Bruce Niemeyer, president of Chevron Appalachia. "This is a bit of a unique coming-together of a variety of different interests."
In addition to Shell and Chevron, the participants include the Environmental Defense Fund, the Clean Air Task Force, the Heinz Endowments, EQT Corp., Consol Energy and the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, and the organizers hope to recruit others.
It may be part of a trend. Earlier this month a coalition of industry and environmental groups in Illinois announced that they worked together on drilling legislation now pending there. But the Pittsburgh project, which has been in the works for nearly two years, would be voluntary.
"We believe it does send a signal to the federal government and other states," said Armand Cohen, the director of the Boston-based Clean Air Task Force. "There's no reason why anyone should be operating at standards less than these."
The new standards include limits on emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and the flaring, or burning off, of unwanted gas; reductions in engine emissions; groundwater monitoring and protection; improved well designs; stricter wastewater disposal; the use of less toxic fracking fluids; and seismic monitoring before drilling begins.
The project will cover Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio — where a frenzy of drilling is under way in the huge, gas-rich Marcellus and Utica Shale formations — as well as New York and other states in the East that have put a hold on new drilling.
Shell said it hopes to be one of the first companies to volunteer to have its operations in Appalachia go through the independent review. Chevron said it expects to apply for certification, too, when the process is ready to start later this year.
Mark Brownstein, an associate vice president with the Environmental Defense Fund, said many oil and gas companies claim to be leaders in protecting the environment, and "this can be one opportunity for them to demonstrate that leadership" by submitting to an audit.
"Anyone who claims to be placing a priority on good management practice" should be rushing to sign up, he said.
The project will be overseen by a 12-member board consisting of four seats for environmentalists, four for industry and four for independent figures: former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill; Christine Todd Whitman, the former New Jersey governor and Environmental Protection Agency chief; Carnegie Mellon University President Jared Cohon; and Jane Long, former associate director at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
The center's proposed 2013 budget is $800,000, with the two sides expected to contribute equal amounts, said Andrew Place, the project's interim leader and director of energy and environmental policy at EQT, an Appalachian energy company.
Mark Frankel, an expert on ethics and law at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, said the idea sounds promising, but it remains to be seen if the new standards are a significant improvement over existing laws. He said there are also ethical and policy questions.
"What does it mean to have an independent board? Who's on it? How do they get on it?" he asked.
George Jugovic, president of the environmental group PennFuture, one of the participants, said the industry's involvement makes this different from past debates over fracking.
"Buy-in from them is huge. That provides leadership from within," Jugovic said. "It's very different from someone from the outside saying, 'You can do better.'"