Voluntary Environmental Standards

The Center for Sustainable Shale Development announced 15 new standards for environmentally sound development of natural gas from shale.  The collaboration among energy companies and environmental groups makes this announcement noteworthy – and promising from both the perspective of the environment and our economic prosperity.

US energy companies have led the way in producing new technologies that have made it possible to extract natural gas from shale in a process that is often referred to as “fracking.”  Natural gas is a much cleaner burning fuel than coal when used to produce electricity at a power plant.  Natural gas has been made much cheaper and more abundant via fracking, leading to its potential to transform the utility industry.  The industry’s power generating plants now depend heavily upon coal, a source of considerably higher atmospheric carbon with its associated global heat containment properties, which have been linked to climate change.

Despite the many benefits of increased use of natural gas, there has been considerable concern with the environmental issues associated with fracking.  The voluntary standards just issued last week are a major step forward in addressing environmental concerns despite criticism of them as just that – voluntary.

The standards address areas of concern, including disposal of wastewater used in the fracking process; that the new standard is zero discharge of waste water will make the fracking process much more friendly to the environment, protecting groundwater and the flora and fauna of nearby streams.  Adding to the positive environmental impact of zero tolerance of wastewater are requirements for well casings and well pads.  Improperly installed well casings can create environmental hazards that may be attributed to the fracking process. Such improper installation, for example, has the potential to contaminate groundwater because of the failure to isolate the well from groundwater.

The new standards also address a frequent criticism of fracking associated with the chemicals used in the fracking fluid.  The standards require disclosure of the chemicals, and they prohibit certain fluids like diesel fuel.

Issues of air pollution have also been a source of criticism of fracking.  The voluntary standards address important sources of air pollution, including requiring vehicles and engines that meet more recent and higher EPA regulations.  While they do not address methane release into the atmosphere, there is still more research that is necessary as a preliminary step to the establishment of the impact of fracking on production of methane.  Methane is a known pollutant that has a far more significant impact on atmospheric heat containment with its than does carbon. Despite the widely reported findings of one study out of Colorado, other scientists, using alternative methodologies and alternative locations for their research, have not duplicated the Colorado finding discussed in a 2012 Nature article.

There are many reasons to applaud rather than criticize the establishment of voluntary standards by the Center for Sustainable Shale Development.  They include the impact of the standards themselves, but they also include the impact of a set of common standards that address variances across states.  That the standards represent the work of industry and environmental groups’ collaborating is a testimony to their role and importance.  While they remain voluntary, it seems very likely that they will be seen by states as the foundation for the establishment of consistent legislation that provides environmental safeguards along with assuring access to a very important, cleaner fuel – natural gas from shale.

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