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Drillers and enviros try to set fracking standards together

U.S. Energy Gas Environment Workers change pipes at a hydraulic fracturing site outside of Waynesburg, Pa.

In the natural gas fracking debate, you don't often get oil and gas companies in the same room with environmentalists, let alone joining the same club.

But in Pittsburgh, a new group has drillers voluntarily agreeing to a set of safety standards that outside auditors will police.

You know LEEDS, the stamp of approval for green buildings?

LEEDS for drillers and frackers is kind of the idea for the new Pittsburgh-area partnership of companies and environmental groups.

The Center for Sustainable Shale Development could go by the acronym kissed. And fracking needs some love from a skeptical public.

"The risks can be managed," says Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund. "But that doesn't mean they will be managed. It's going to take a big effort by local citizens, by the state regulators, and by the progressive members of industry."

An industrial industry. It's not just fracking -- sending water and chemicals down a well. It's pipelines, wastewater pits, trucks, odor.

"Well before you get to a fracking location you're likely to be able to smell it," says energy consultant Kent Moors, who also teaches at Duquesne University. "And it's not because of the gas because the gas is odorless. You're really going to be smelling diesel. The huge footprint to run all of that equipment is run on diesel fuel, and that diesel regularly leaks."

The group's new standards call for burning less diesel on wellpads, as well as safe drilling practices, controlling air pollution and taking care of drill fluids and wastewater.

Four companies have volunteered to comply, including Chevron. Regional head Bruce Niemeyer hopes the system wins over nervous western Pennsylvanians who recall the days of coalmining here.

"Many remember prior industrial activities," Niemeyer says, "and have some question in their mind: does this activity take them to a similar place? And understandably we don't want to see any regression."

Critics say they already see regression. Several pollution lawsuits are underway.

It's hard to measure if industry has a community's goodwill. But if it does, Fred Krupp at Environmental Defense Fund argues the product of drilling and fracking -- natural gas -- has upsides.

"There are environmental benefits of using gas over coal," Krupp says. "in terms of cleaner air, less particulates, less sulfur and nitrogen coming out of power plants."

Natural gas spews fewer greenhouse gases than coal, and makes cheap American energy and petrochemicals.

The question is whether third-party certifying will help give industry the public trust to drill and frack long-term.

About the author

Scott Tong is a correspondent for Marketplace’s sustainability desk, with a focus on energy, environment, resources, climate, supply chain and the global economy.

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