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Center for Sustainable Shale Development has difficulty finding participants

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By Timothy Puko
Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

As the year-old Center for Sustainable Shale Development ramps up its efforts to set standards for responsible drilling, it confronts a tough challenge recruiting companies to participate and submit their work for review.

Several of the region's shale gas drillers said they're unlikely to pursue certification from the center, an alliance of environmentalists and oil and gas companies that was designed to establish standards for environmental protection and monitor compliance.

The Downtown-based center announced on Tuesday that it's accepting applicants for review, 10 months after it began operations. But some companies said they're confident in their own work, the state's regulations and recommendations from their long-standing trade groups.

“We'd probably look over their most recent information to see what they're offering, but we really try to look to see what regulations are on the books and exceed those,” said George E. Stark, government policy director at Cabot Oil & Gas Corp. “That's the driver for us.“

Michael E. Webber, co-director of the Clean Energy Incubator at the University of Texas, said he didn't find those kinds of explanations convincing. But he said the center could be in trouble if it can't recruit more participants.

“It's a huge challenge for the center, there's no question. It might mean they have to go back to the drawing board to achieve broader engagement,” Webber said.

Cabot drills in Eastern Pennsylvania and has a regional office in Pittsburgh. Marcellus shale drillers that said they're unlikely to participate include Exxon Mobil Corp., Talisman Energy Inc., WPX Energy and Range Resources Corp., which controls the most Marcellus rights in Western Pennsylvania.

At its core, the center has a set of 15 standards to limit drilling's environmental impact on air and water, and drillers go through a certification process to prove to the public they're meeting those standards.

Four drilling companies — Chevron Corp., Cecil-based Consol Energy Inc., Downtown-based EQT Corp. and Royal Dutch Shell plc — are founding members of the group and will submit their work for review. But the center will need more volunteers to succeed.

Several more have talked with center officials about participating, interim executive director Andrew Place said, but he declined to say whom or how many. He plans to advise his replacement to start recruiting new companies.

“Now that this is completed, it's fully formed, it is the moment to walk this around,” he said during a conference call to announce the official beginning of the program. “In the long run, I would judge success that we have a meaningful section of operators in the Appalachian basin.”

The group had hoped to help bring peace between drillers and environmentalists, and then ended up being a lightening rod for criticism from both sides. That peaked with tension at one of the center's founding members, The Heinz Endowments, and the departure of several officials there over the foundation's collaboration with drillers.

The endowments have funded a wide range of research pointing out the risks of increased gas drilling, but none of the drilling companies cited that in their rationale and many said it didn't play a role. Many just don't see the need if they're already following the law and paying attention to their trade group's research on industry best practices.

“I haven't heard anyone jumping on the bandwagon,” said Gary Slagel, a former environmental affairs advisor at Consol who works for an energy law firm. Local shale drillers “know the Marcellus Shale Coalition has undertaken a number of recommended practices that have set the bar where it needs to be in terms of exemplary environmental performance. There's just no reason to go beyond that at this time, plus we've got DEP constantly nipping at our heels with new rulemaking initiatives.”

Timothy Puko is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7991 or

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