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GASP and the Center for Sustainable Shale Development

March 20 marked the public launch of the Center for Sustainable Shale Development—a nonprofit collaboration between shale gas producers, environmental organizations, and philanthropic foundations, aimed at reducing the impacts of shale gas development on communities, human health, and the environment. GASP is one of the organizations participating in the development of CSSD.

The CSSD announcement provoked a variety of reactions, from praise, to skepticism, to hostility. CSSD has been described as “a heartening breakthrough in the war over fracking,” “a positive development but . . . the devil is in the details,” “an organization that compromises (too far) with eco-nuts,” and “a new greenwashing group backed by the oil and gas industry.”

Now that the initial controversy has subsided, we thought we should explain why GASP decided to get involved with CSSD and address some of the criticisms directed at the organization.

About CSSD

First, a bit more information about the Center. CSSD aims to reduce the impact of shale gas development by developing performance standards and a certification process for companies that commit to meeting these standards. The idea is to create something like the shale-gas equivalent of LEED certification for green buildings or the Forest Stewardship Council certification for responsible forest management.

The CSSD performance standards include requirements to conduct a geological review prior to drilling a well to ensure there are no unintended pathways for frack fluid or methane migration (e.g. an abandoned well bore) and to meet ongoing water monitoring requirements after the well is completed. These are similar to underground injection control requirements of the Safe Drinking Water Act that would apply nationwide if not for the Halliburton Loophole. Other CSSD performance standards include requirements to reduce air emissions from trucks, frack pumps, drill rigs, stationary compressor engines, condensate tanks, and well completions.

In addition to reducing the negative impacts of this industry in general, the certification process is also intended to provide a credible means for more responsible companies to distinguish themselves from less responsible ones—which is particularly valuable given the relatively wide observed variation in environmental compliance from one operator to another.

Clearly we think CSSD is a step in the right direction, but not everyone is convinced. Next I’ll discuss some of the specific criticisms of CSSD we’ve encountered.

Criticism #1: “Voluntary standards are no substitute for regulations.”

We agree. The CSSD standards are not enforceable regulations, nor are they any substitute for strong, effective regulations. Rather, these are voluntary standards intended to go above and beyond existing regulatory requirements. Some of the critics of CSSD have misinterpreted the term “voluntary” to mean that compliance with the standards is based entirely on the honor system. This is not the case. The CSSD certification process will include ongoing measures, such as third-party inspections and recordkeeping and reporting requirements, to ensure companies are meeting the CSSD performance standards.

Criticism #2: “The standards don’t address every negative impact of shale gas development.”

Again, we agree, but we had to start somewhere. The current CSSD performance standards address a number of issues, but they certainly aren’t all inclusive. The CSSD performance standards will always be a work in progress. Over time, the Center will develop additional performance standards to address other impacts of the industry, as well as update existing standards to ensure they continue to go beyond the status quo.

Criticism #3: “CSSD is just another industry PR campaign.”

We knew many would view CSSD as an industry green wash effort, and frankly, it’s a perfectly reasonable reaction. Industry efforts to portray themselves as socially or environmental responsible rarely correspond with reality. GASP has no interest in endorsing an industry PR campaign, but neither do we expect mere words to alter the opinion of those who view CSSD as a PR stunt. If CSSD is to win over the skeptics, it won’t be based on what the organization says it will do, but what it actually does. GASP supports CSSD because we believe it is a promising means to significantly reduce the negative impacts of shale gas development. If CSSD is successful, it will achieve tangible results that, over time, will convince the skeptics it’s not just another industry PR campaign.

Criticism #4: “CSSD undermines moratorium efforts.”

First, a reminder of GASP’s position on shale gas development:

Prior to allowing shale gas development in the Commonwealth, Pennsylvania should have conducted a thorough examination of the risks associated with shale gas extraction and adopted a regulatory framework sufficient to protect communities, the environment, and human health from these risks. 
 
Instead, Pennsylvania has allowed this industry to grow at an astonishing rate in a regulatory environment inadequate to address the challenges it poses.
 
While Pennsylvania should have pursued a more cautious, deliberative approach, the reality is that the shale gas industry is here, and its impact on our air, our water, and our communities cannot be ignored.  GASP supports efforts to minimize these impacts. 

While GASP is focused on mitigating the present impacts of shale gas development rather than moratorium efforts, we disagree with the notion that CSSD undermines efforts to secure or maintain shale gas moratorium. It’s no more inconsistent for a moratorium advocate to support efforts to reduce shale gas impacts than for a peace activist to support the Geneva Conventions.

Conclusion

CSSD is the result of a successful collaboration between shale gas companies and environmental organizations. While this cooperative approach does represent a notable departure from the generally polarizing nature of the shale gas debate, by no means is it a departure from the mission or principles GASP has pursued for over 40 years. Our participation in CSSD is simply a new avenue for GASP to pursue its efforts to improve air quality in southwestern Pennsylvania. GASP’s other efforts to improve air quality, including our shale gas work, will continue unabated.

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