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Third-party certification for fracking to ensure compliance with performance standards
In the past two years, my Ferguson on the Frontline column has covered a number of topics, from rainwater collection to new industry standards and even Osama bin Laden. None of my other articles have been more controversial, however—judging from the responses—than my articles on fracking. I have heard from readers across the country who support me for “saying what needs to be said” and others who think that my views could not be more wrong and that I must have some “agenda” or that I stand to profit from fracking in some way.
Let me first say that I find it gratifying to get comments on my articles whether they are for or against. I enjoy a good debate, especially on a controversial subject. Let me also say that I have no agenda when it comes to fracking and I do not stand to profit from its growth or regulation. I am not an environmental consultant; nor do I have any connection with the oil and gas industry. In my day job, I work in industrial microbiology and the development and sale of products that help to assure the sterility and safety of pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and foods. I have no connection to the oil and gas industry; nor do I belong to any of the environmental advocacy groups that oppose fracking.
I do, however, believe that we all stand to benefit from greater sources of safe and clean domestic energy, the likely resurgence of U.S. manufacturing fueled by the availability of lower-cost energy, the economic benefits of becoming a net exporter of oil, natural gas and energy, and the economic growth and job creation that will follow. If that is a conflict of interest, then I am guilty as charged.
A frequent criticism of fracking is the lack of oversight and control in this growing field. Many have stated that even though fracking has been used as a drilling technique for more than 50 years, and there are thousands of wells that have been developed using the technique with no adverse impacts, the use of the technique has grown so rapidly in the past few years that we are entering a new era of unknowns and potential risks that calls for additional oversight.
Fracking Operations Certification
There is a new development that may serve to expand the oversight of fracking. The Center for Sustainable Shale Development (CSSD) has implemented an independent third-party certification program for fracking operations and began accepting applications this past February. Initially, the scope of the CSSD certification program will be regional, focusing on the Appalachian Basin, which includes the well-known Marcellus Shale region.
The program initially will include 15 performance standards for fracking operations that range from air and climate performance standards to surface and groundwater protection standards, including those with a goal of zero wastewater discharge, water recycling, disclosure of fracking fluids used, groundwater monitoring before and after well development, and other environmental and operational standards.
The program will include an initial assessment of qualifications and compliance with the performance standards followed by an onsite audit to verify the operations. The certification also will include annual recertification and compliance audits scheduled on 48 hours’ notice to assure continued adherence to and compliance with the performance standards. In the early phases of the program, companies can elect to certify in three categories: operational excellence in Air & Climate, Water & Waste or full certification (i.e., all 15 performance standards). CSSD considers it reasonable to give companies time to comply with the performance standards, but it expects that all certified companies (and those seeking certification) will apply for full certification within two years of the program initiation and achieve full certification within three years. Bureau Veritas has partnered with CSSD to help develop the certification processes needed to start this program.
Once a company has applied for and completed the requirements, the final certification decision will be made by CSSD and a three-member committee consisting of two of CSSD’s independent board members and one additional nominee. This committee currently includes former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill and former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator and governor of New Jersey Christine Todd Whitman, as well as former Pennsylvania Consumer Advocate Irwin Popowsky.
Having worked in the certification industry for many years, I can say that independent, third-party certification programs are an effective means of establishing consensus within an industry for effective control and continuous improvement. The process often seems chaotic and indirect (especially when compared with direct government regulation) as regulators, the regulated industry, consumers, environmental advocates and all interested “stakeholders” debate and look for compromise in their various positions. Having seen the process up close, however, I can tell you that it works. I also can tell you that certification is faster at affecting change than government regulation.
Ahead of the State
Some years ago I was instrumental in the process to develop standards for the now well-accepted low-lead requirements for plumbing products. In this process, we were able to work through all of the standards and certification requirements well ahead of the enactment of any of the state regulations. By doing so, manufacturers were able to redesign, certify and market their new low-lead products long before the regulatory requirements took effect. This means that more lead was driven out of plumbing products sooner, and with fewer unintended consequences, than would have been possible with the regulatory process.
One of the key tests of strength of a certification program lies in its general acceptance, particularly with buyers. If buyers demand to see certification, or, better yet, agree to pay a premium for the certified product, the program will grow, and more—if not all—of the producers will participate. This buy-side influence in terms of the certification of fracking operations could initially be driven by large users of natural gas such as heavy industries, government agencies and similar large consumers. Another form of buy-side acceptance could come from governmental authorities having jurisdiction over the siting and permitting of fracking operations. If those authorities require performance certification as a prerequisite to permitting a new operation, that would also be a strong driver for wide acceptance of the program.
How successful this particular program will be remains to be seen, but I wish the CSSD the best of luck in the development and pursuit of its certification program.