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New attempt on fracking standards launches

PITTSBURGH (AP) — A hotly debated partnership between major oil and gas companies and some environmental groups moved forward Tuesday, almost a year after it was first announced.

FrackProtest

In this March 12, 2013 file photo, Gregg Brown of Bloomington, Ill., joins environmental group members to show support inside the Capitol rotunda in an effort to pressure lawmakers for a two-year moratorium on hydraulic fracturing at the state Capitol in Springfield, Ill. Illinois lawmakers' passage of a unique consensus bill to regulate the controversial practice of oil and gas drilling known as "fracking" was as one of the top 10 stories in Illinois for 2013. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman, File)

The Pittsburgh-based Center for Sustainable Shale said in a release that it is now accepting applications for a program that aims to enforce tough but voluntary new standards for fracking and other related activities in the Northeast. The CSSD said it has hired Bureau Veritas, a French global testing and inspection firm, to review applications and compliance by drillers.

The Environmental Defense Fund, PennFuture and some other prominent environmental groups are part of CSSD, but others — such as the Sierra Club — have criticized the effort, saying it isn't meaningful and that a voluntary program is no substitute for tough state or federal rules.

But some energy companies, such as Chesapeake Energy, have suggested that there's no need to go beyond existing state regulations, and have said they won't join or support CSSD.

The boom in Marcellus Shale gas drilling in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio has generated tens of billions of dollars, and reduced energy bills and imports. But it's also led to significant concerns and protests over air and water pollution.

Andrew Place, who has been the CSSD's interim director, welcomed the scrutiny.

"The substance is in the breadth and depth that we're bringing to the oversight" of the industry, he said, calling Bureau Veritas — which was founded in 1828 — "the gold standard" for independent oversight.

Place, who works for EQT Corp., a Pittsburgh energy company, said that the CSSD review will require testing of nearby water wells before and after drilling and noted that the CSSD's new director, Susan LeGros, has extensive experience not only as an environmental lawyer in Philadelphia, but as a former Environmental Protection Agency staff member.

The founding members of CSSD include energy companies Chevron, Shell, EQT and Consol Energy, along with the Clean Air Council, the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, and other environmental groups. The Heinz Endowments provided some startup funding but it's not clear how involved the charity will be in the future.

Curtis Smith, a spokesman for Shell, said the company will apply for CSSD certification in the second quarter of 2014, a process it expects to take six months. Place said he also expects EQT to apply in the spring, and Chevron and Consol are expected to release more details about their plans later Tuesday.

The certification process is essentially an independent review of each applicant's practices for drilling and environmental protection, measured against the CSSD standards. A firm that passes the review is also monitored for compliance over the next two years, at which point it must go through the review process again.

A spokeswoman for the Sierra Club did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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