Unlikely partners work to make fracking safer

March 9, 2014 at 12:00 AM EDT
In an unlikely alliance, natural gas companies and environmentalists have decided to work together to make fracking safer. Rick Karr travels to Pennsylvania to explore the tensions this has created among environmental groups.

This report was originally broadcast on Nov. 3, 2013. 

ANNOUNCER: Environmentalists and oil and gas companies are used to finding themselves on opposite sides of debates about fossil fuel consumption, pollution, and global climate change. But in Pennsylvania, some environmental advocacy groups have formed an unlikely coalition with oil and gas companies…and that’s led to a rift with other environmentalists. Correspondent Rick Karr reports.

RICK KARR: Environmentalists have been protesting against fracking in Pennsylvania ever since the state’s natural gas boom began about ten years ago.

RICK KARR:  Their main concern is that the chemicals that are pumped into wells at high pressure to extract the gas will leak into the water table and spill into lakes and streams. Advocates of fracking say the threat of contamination has been grossly exaggerated. But environmentalists say oil and gas companies need to come clean about the risks.

MARK BROWNSTEIN: It is– fundamentally an untruth to walk into a community and say that this is a 100 percent safe process.  It isn’t.  No industrial process is, okay. Make no mistake about it, the risks are real.  And they’re substantial.

RICK KARR:  Despite all of those concerns, Mark Brownstein of the Environmental Defense Fund is now working with oil and gas companies that are fracking in Pennsylvania. Brownstein says the environmental group isn’t in favor of fracking — but it is in favor of using more natural gas as an alternative to coal  because gas is cleaner.  A new report by the Environmental Protection Agency says that U.S. power plants have recently cut their total greenhouse gas emissions by more than six percent — mostly because so many have switched from coal to gas. Brownstein believes natural gas is the fossil fuel we should be using — until we can get our energy from renewable resources like wind and solar power.

MARK BROWNSTEIN: That’s what we want.  But we also understand that it’s going to take some time to get there.  And the question is, is what do you do in the meantime?

RICK KARR:  So a little over two years ago, the Environmental Defense Fund started to talk to the companies fracking for gas in Pennsylvania – the ones that so many other environmentalists see as the enemy.

MARK BROWNSTEIN: And in order to make change, you have to take the time to learn their industry, learn their concerns, and be able to talk with folks on their terms about what you see the problems are and also what you see the opportunities are to fix those problems.

RICK KARR:  One of the oil and gas companies Brownstein approached also saw an opportunity.  Paul Goodfellow is a Shell executive.

PAUL GOODFELLOW: This idea of creating an environment where you can have a rational conversation with people and look at the data, look at the facts, think about how collectively we can, you know, raise the performance bar and I think is a conversation that we can do with more of taking place.

RICK KARR:  Earlier this year, Shell and three other energy companies joined the Environmental Defense Fund and six other nonprofits to form a coalition called the Center for Sustainable Shale Development. Its first order of business was to announce a set of environmental standards for fracking that Brownstein hopes can serve as a model for the industry, and for state and federal regulations.

MARK BROWNSTEIN: What we’re hoping to do with this project, frankly, is constantly push the envelope in terms of what is possible.  Certify companies to that higher standard.  Let that be an example for regulators, sure.  But for others in industry too as to what is possible, and in so doing, you’re constantly trying to move this forward in a positive–  in a better direction.

RICK KARR:  Three of the fifteen standards the group announced are aimed at reducing diesel emissions at fracking sites. Seven of them are aimed at keeping the fracking chemicals out of water supplies, lakes, and rivers. Right away, environmentalists split into two camps. The EDF and its partners in the coalition touted the standards as a breakthrough. Many other environmentalists saw the standards as empty rhetoric from the energy companies.

RICK KARR: Do we just have to take Shell’s word and the word of other energy companies that you’re going to abide by these higher standards?

PAUL GOODFELLOW: No.  Because I think, you know, the key element is not just the fact that there are 15 performance standards that have been written. It’s the fact that there’s an independent auditor that will come around and verify that our operations are actually executing to those standards. It’s about having the independent, verifying audit, if you like, that actually comes and looks at our operations in Pennsylvania, and says, “Yes.  You are meeting the standards.”

JOHN DETWILER: I will start to believe that it makes a difference the first time that somebody stops drilling a well or doesn’t drill a well based on one of those standards.

RICK KARR:  John Detwiler is an anti-fracking activist who’s lined up against the coalition.

JOHN DETWILER: I mean, the score card right now is, the amount of benefit to the environment — absolutely none.  The benefit to the industry is you’ve got a new myth and that says that the environmentalists are now on board.

RICK KARR:  Detwiler’s a retired engineer who spent much of his career advising the power industry. He believes it’s impossible to frack for gas safely.

JOHN DETWILER: I think there’s a mindset in the extraction industry that what really matters is what’s under the ground.  And you don’t choose your sites based on what’s on top. You know, the people, the houses, the trees, that’s just the stuff that’s in the way.  You choose it based on how much you’re going to get.

RICK KARR:  Fracking wells have been popping up closer and closer to Detwiler’s native Pittsburgh, and places that are important to him.

JOHN DETWILER: My grandkids played in this park.  You know, our older ones learned to ride their bikes in this park ’cause they lived down the road.  So it certainly has personal value to me.

RICK KARR:  Allowing an energy company to drill under the park could earn the county two to four million dollars up front, according to the county executive. And as much as seven hundred thousand dollars a year in royalties after that.

RICK KARR: Can you blame in this time of budget deficits, a county government for saying, “We’d like to have that money.”

JOHN DETWILER: I think there’s something more important at stake here is– are you going to sell anything and everything? I’d like to see us start off by deciding that there are some places that aren’t worth it. Even if they took some of that money and built a boat dock or a concession stand or something like that, you know, this– this is not just another plastic entertainment venue.  I mean, this is a little slice of nature that we can treat as nature.  If we frack underneath it, then deep down at some level, it’s just another factory even if it has grass on top.

RICK KARR:  Detwiler says fracking has made gas so inexpensive that it’s distracting Americans from the need to invest in renewable energy sources. And that the Environmental Defense Fund’s coalition with oil and gas companies is only going to make the situation worse.

RICK KARR: Do they have a point at all there?

MARK BROWNSTEIN: I understand where the passion is coming from, right.  And I share that.  But to stand by and do nothing to minimize risk to public health and the environment from fossil fuel production is unacceptable to me.

RICK KARR:  Mark Brownstein says that if the evidence shows that oil and gas companies in the coalition aren’t serious about improving the environmental standards for fracking, the EDF will walk away and make sure that everyone knows why. For now, though, he’s borrowing a phrase Ronald Reagan used when he sat down to negotiate with the Soviets: Trust, but verify.