On March 20th, a group led by major natural gas drilling companies Chevron, CONSOL Energy, EQT Corporation, and Shell announced that they have negotiated a set of voluntary environmental standards for shale gas hydraulic fracturing. The new coalition includes five environmental groups and two foundations that have environmental interests. The new Center for Sustainable Shale Development (CSSD) certification will include 15 performance standards for fracking operations.
This effort is encouraging because, until now, the arguments about fracking have been largely based solely on two voices: the drillers claiming that the technology is absolutely safe and the environmentalists claiming it is irreparably flawed. While the truth is grayer than these positions, the bottom line has been that America’s thirst for energy has trumped any environmental concerns, until politicians get an earful from constituents and ban fracking altogether. The CSSD standards have been compared to the LEED certification for certifying construction of environmental buildings and are likely to help relieve some of the tension surrounding fracking.
The CSSD standards are a good first step, but I see a few flaws that are likely to undermine some of their effectiveness. For the most part, these new standards cover groundwater, the water used for fracking, the flaring of natural gas, and the type of diesel fuel that can be used at drilling sites. The standards do not seem to make any effort to address the air pollution associated with drilling or the land use. Most of the time, the air pollution surrounding fracking operations is substantially worse than other areas. What’s more, the CSSD standards ignore the pollution impact of all the motors running on a drilling site.
Drill motors are almost always considered non-road diesel engines by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and therefore, have different requirements than the diesel trucks that are used on the road. Natural gas-fueled motors for drilling operations are starting to come into play, but these remain few and far between and the CSSD standards are unlikely to push that front.
Another challenge with the CSSD standards is one of geography: these standards (so far) only apply to the Appalachian area and the Marcellus shale gas region. Whether they’ll be accepted by drillers in Wyoming and western states remains an open question, though it should be noted that Chevron and Shell both drill in those areas as well. This geographic limit is likely driven by the number and location of environmental partners in the CSSD, but it gives the impression of more political posturing.
Still, the fact that drillers and environmentalists came together to put together some standards that appear to help reduce the impact of fracking is huge. So, the billion dollar question is: will voluntary CSSD standards be enough to quell the fracking concerns and stave off additional legislative regulations? Don’t bet on it. The Sierra Club has already blasted the voluntary nature of the standards, and the Environmental Defense Fund has come out saying that these should complement, not replace, regulations. Ultimately the success of these new standards will rest in the court of public opinion, and the public, right now, shows little inclination to limit the natural gas bonanza.
Tags: Alternative Fuel Vehicles, Clean Transportation, Climate Change, Natural Gas, Oil & Gas, Policy & Regulation, Smart Transportation Practice
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