Center for Sustainable Shale Development aims to raise standards
Two years after a group of environmentalists joined forces with four natural gas producers to set standards for the shale drilling industry, organizers of the collaboration stopped to consider a few important questions.
“It needed someone to take a look at the organization to say, ‘Where are we? Where do we want to go? How do we get there?'” said Susan Packard LeGros, who was hired as director of the Center for Sustainable Shale Development nearly a year ago.
The questions were part of a strategic planning process LeGros recently began. As a lawyer with industry and environmental protection experience, LeGros is seen as a leader who could build bridges between two groups — environmentalists and drillers — that often clash with each other.
The center has yet to see critical mass from gas drillers willing to have their practices reviewed to see if they meet the group's voluntary standards that are believed to be tougher than state protections for the environment. It also has faced criticism about whether it can be effective.
In the year since the group, based Downtown at EQT Plaza, invited companies to be audited, it has certified one company. While drillers appear slow to submit their work for review, LeGros said, there is “a resounding yes” from the community about a need for the center.
The group issued its first certification in September to Chevron, verifying the world's ninth-largest energy firm met all 15 of the center's air and water standards. Cecil-based Consol Energy Inc. told the Tribune-Review it finished the auditing process and hopes to get certification in the next few weeks.
LeGros wants 2015 to be a year of growth for the center, which spent much of 2014 defending itself against criticism. The Heinz Endowments, one of its founding partners, dropped its financial support because the charity's new leadership thought the center's standards were unenforceable and “we disagree with the position suggested by the organization's name that fracking can be made environmentally ‘sustainable.'”
The Public Accountability Initiative issued its second report attacking center members for their connections to various industries. A report in December from the Delaware Riverkeeper Network pointed out what it considers shortcomings in the performance standards used to certify companies.
“The only thing that the center accomplished successfully was to provide a false greenwashing opportunity for the drilling industry and for politicians,” said Delaware Riverkeeper's Maya van Rossum, a critic of natural gas development.
LeGros, who worked as a lawyer for the Environmental Protection Agency and chemical industries, said she and center members remain committed to its unique mission of bridging the gap between the industry and environmentalists, and raising industry standards. She and supporters cite huge accomplishments in writing the standards and getting one company certified in what they consider a short span.
“This is tough stuff,” said Davitt Woodwell, president of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, a member of the center, discussing both the process of building the group and the standards for certification. “This isn't just everybody come on and sign up and you're in. It's not easy, and it's not meant to be easy.”
The standards require companies to have in place certain equipment and policies to limit the potential for air or water pollution from drilling, fracking and production at wells. The center hired Bureau Veritas to audit an applicant's adherence to the standards.
LeGros called certifying Chevron “a tremendous learning experience” as the center saw how much a company has to do to show it's meeting standards. A Chevron spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
“We were very pleased with how quickly we were able to navigate the audit, which speaks to our commitment to our core values and ... that many of the required CSSD standards were already in practice across our operations,” said Brian Aiello, a spokesman for Consol, which is a member of the center with Chevron, EQT Corp. and Royal Dutch Shell.
Mike DeWitt, general manager of Shell Appalachia, called the center a “game-changer” for balancing economic and environmental needs. He did not say whether the firm has sought certification.
“2015 will be a critical year for CSSD to attract other operators to pursue certification,” he said.
EQT has said it planned to seek certification but did not comment for this story. The center does not identify companies seeking certification unless they gain it.
LeGros hopes to bring more companies and nonprofits into the center and stabilize funding for its annual budget of about $1 million. When Heinz left and the Philadelphia-based William Penn Foundation decided not to follow up its initial grant, the funding balance shifted too heavily to industry members.
“We've had to reach out beyond the southwestern Pennsylvania philanthropic community,” LeGros said. She declined to identify potential funders.
Much of the criticism has come from the nonprofit sector LeGros is courting, which she called “unexpected.”
Some regulators and industry leaders are put off by a group saying it has higher standards for them, said former Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Mike Krancer.
“Certification by this one group shouldn't be a litmus test. Who anointed them?” said Krancer, who said he supports the collaborative spirit but questions the center's approach.
“They came on with great fanfare, but it's been crickets since then,” he said.
The new strategic plan calls for the center to work on better communicating what it does to the public, LeGros said. She hopes to organize a public forum as the center considers potentially adding to the standards.
“The intent was never to say we're done with those standards,” she said, noting two years is a short time frame for a group to get settled.
“This is one part of a very complicated energy and climate picture,” said Woodwell. “The fact it's still moving forward is a testament.”
David Conti is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-388-5802 or firstname.lastname@example.org.