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New 'certification' group to look closely at shale gas drillers

| Monday, Feb. 11, 2013, 12:17 a.m.

Environmental groups and drilling companies are forming a first-of-its kind organization to scrutinize shale gas drillers' practices in Appalachia, but at least one industry supporter won't participate.

The Environmental Defense Fund, PennFuture, The Heinz Endowments, EQT and Shell are among collaborators in an organization to certify which drillers meet the best industry standards. Next month, the group will publicly start the Institute for Gas Drilling Excellence, officials said. How it will be funded isn't clear.

The institute's aim is to encourage best practices and measure companies' performance, much like a college accreditation agency or LEED certification for environmentally friendly buildings, organizers said.

“The best possible outcome is that this becomes the standard-bearer certification group, that their mark of thumbs-up really means something and their thumbs-down really means something,” said Michael E. Webber, co-director of the Clean Energy Incubator at the University of Texas.

He said the organization will face questions about its funding and how much influence the industry has over its operations. Poorly structured financial incentives or too much industry influence could set a low bar and undermine safety, Webber said.

Organizers said others are involved, although they declined to name them.

The Marcellus Shale Coalition, which represents energy industries, will not participate, spokesman Travis Windle said.

“While we certainly recognize the ongoing efforts of various stakeholders, our organization remains very focused on continuing to develop our recommended practices,” he said.

Drillers are more likely to work with groups, such as the Environmental Defense Fund, that haven't pushed for drilling moratoriums, said Louis D. D'Amico, leader of the Pennsylvania Independent Oil & Gas Association, which wasn't aware of the initiative. The industry collaborates with environmental groups to monitor regulatory programs, he said.

“I think it's a very big positive,” D'Amico said.

An Environmental Defense Fund leader and several industry officials and consultants at the September Shale Gas Insight conference in Philadelphia advocated for regional groups, or “centers of excellence.” These collaboratives are important for promoting standards nationwide and bolstering public trust in an industry often blamed or suspected in environmental or public health problems, they said.

Former Department of Environmental Protection Secretary John Hanger helped found the group. It is registered as a charity at Hanger's former Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellott law office in Harrisburg, according to GuideStar.org. Hanger stepped down when he became a candidate for governor last year.

Andrew Place, director of public policy research at Downtown-based EQT, will run the group in the interim.

“I think it's an important initiative that's potentially different from the industry-led best-practice groups,” Hanger said. “I'm eager to see what is publicly announced.”

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

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