Voluntary Certification Program for Fracking Companies Is Not Enough


Last week, a coalition of natural gas producers, environmental groups, and philanthropic organizations unveiled a voluntary certification program for companies engaged in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in the Marcellus Shale region (parts of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, western Maryland, and western Virginia). The program is based on a set of fifteen water and air protection standards, which are more stringent than current federal law and many state laws. However, a careful review of the standards shows that they are still not strong enough and should not replace public protections enforced by state and federal governments.

The newly created Center for Sustainable Shale Development hopes the new certification program will develop into an "environmental seal of approval" for fracking, comparable to the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, certifications awarded to sustainable, energy-efficient buildings. The fracking certification program was the result of a contentious, two-year process to find common ground on environmental, health, and safety practices in hydraulic fracturing.

Under the new program, drilling companies must adhere to 15 performance standards that require public disclosure of the chemicals used in fracking and reductions in air pollution and wastewater from drilling, and that prohibit the use of diesel fuel in fracking fluid. An independent contractor will audit the companies to ensure they are meeting the standards.

The standards represent some progress on environmental and disclosure issues, but the program is problematic for several reasons. For one, the voluntary nature of the program means the scope of participation will be limited, and there is no real enforcement mechanism beyond the independent audit. Furthermore, an optional program such as this may distract from addressing the needed improvements in state policies, which are inadequate, poorly enforced, and in need of an overhaul, and could also divert attention from the need for strong, uniform federal health and safety standards.

Second, though the standards are considered more stringent than some existing state rules on fracking, they still lack the key elements of an effective chemical disclosure policy, identified in a 2012 report from the Center for Effective Government. For instance, the standards provide public disclosure of the chemicals used in fracking, but there is no requirement for when companies should disclose the chemicals. Companies must report the chemicals they plan to use in fracking prior to drilling as part of the permit application process in order for chemical disclosure to be meaningful and useful. In fact, Illinois lawmakers introduced a bill last month that would do just that.

Additionally, the new program's standards require companies to disclose the chemical family name of chemicals labeled as trade secrets, but there is no process to review and evaluate those trade secrets claims. Gas drillers in Wyoming have used a "trade secrets" claim to resist the state's disclosure laws, and a legal challenge to release this information was recently rejected.

While it is encouraging that oil and gas companies have collaborated with environmental organizations to create stronger standards on fracking, the effort is not enough to ensure protection of public health and the environment. No voluntary program can replace strong state and federal rules. Armond Cohen, Executive Director of the Clean Air Task Force, one of the Center's founding environmental organizations, acknowledged that the voluntary standards are a "good start," but not a "substitute for state and federal regulation, or a reason for government inaction." The focus going forward should be to collaborate with state and federal officials to strengthen and enforce public safeguards.

Image by wikimedia user Ruhrfisc, used under a Creative Commons license.

back to Blog