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Environmentalists, Drillers Reach 'Truce' For Fracking Standards

A group of environmentalists and drilling companies has crafted a truce of sorts over the rapid spread of natural gas production in the Appalachian Basin. Four major drilling companies and several environmental groups have agreed on 15 voluntary standards for cleaner drilling practices.

The practices of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing — when companies inject water laced with chemicals deep underground to split open rock formations and get the gas to flow faster — are transforming the rural region in the Eastern U.S. into a sprawling industrial zone.

"It's quite frankly a game changer for the nation in terms of energy supply, and that's drawn to it a lot of attention," says Bruce Niemeyer, head of Chevron's Appalachia unit. "In order to realize the benefits in the long term, as an industry we need to go about development in a responsible way."

But many environmental groups have complained that the companies have contaminated the air and water.

Certification Process

Chevron hopes to put an end to those claims. Chevron and Shell are among the four major drilling companies that have worked on the standards for two years with an assortment of environmental groups.

The idea is that drilling companies will agree to be audited. Independent experts will visit their operations and determine if they are complying with the new standards.

"It's equivalent to an accounting firm auditing a company or an individual's accounts," says Andrew Place, the director of energy and environmental policy at EQT Corp., another big drilling company that is participating in the standards.

Place says he knows a certification process like this can help allay landowners' fears, because he owns a farm in western Pennsylvania close to drilling operations.

"It matters to me that I have independent corroboration that these procedures are being done around us in a safe manner that I can have assurance of," Place says.

'Some Missed Opportunities'

But just how rigorous are these standards? Some of them accelerate the adoption of cleaner practices; others borrow protective rules from one state and apply them across the multistate region; and some move up deadlines that have already been set by the federal government.

"The new standards are a mix of what's already being done, some positive new advances and, I think, a few missed opportunities," says Rob Jackson, an environmental scientist at Duke University who studies the effects of the natural gas industry in Pennsylvania.

Jackson says that for water, the standards are pretty good. The industry uses vast quantities of water, and the standards set a target for recycling 90 percent of it. That will reduce the amount of freshwater the industry uses and how much dirty water it needs to get rid of.

The standards also would prohibit the discharge of dirty water into streams. Any wastewater would have to be injected into the ground in deep wells.

But Jackson says he is disappointed that standards don't include requirements to measure the air pollution that is pumped out from wells and equipment.

"If a compound — a chemical like benzene or toluene — drifts downwind into where people live and into the air they breathe, it could have health consequences, and we need more information about that," Jackson says.

Some environmental groups are skeptical about the effort because the standards are voluntary and, so far, only a handful of drilling companies have agreed to the deal.

"We're very dubious that everybody would sign up," says Kate Sinding, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "This is an industry that, for the most part, has shown itself not to be trustworthy.

"And so certification standards are nice, but they're no substitute for real enforceable rules and regulations at the federal level and the state level."

'Jury Is Out'

Mark Brownstein represents Environmental Defense Fund, one of the groups involved in the new voluntary standards. He says "the jury is out" on how many companies will agree to audits, and whether the standards will effectively safeguard the air and water.

But, he says, hydraulic fracturing is happening across the country, so it's urgent to change the culture inside the industry so that it better protects public health and safety.

"The question at the end of the day is not whether you like fracking or don't like fracking," Brownstein says. "The real question is, if it's going to be done, are there ways to make sure that it's done properly? And we think that there are."

The first audits of cleaner fracking are expected by the end of the year.

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Elizabeth Shogren is an NPR News Science Desk correspondent focused on covering environment and energy issues and news.