An agreement to agree on fracking in the Northeast

Posted Thursday, Mar. 21, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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norman News out of Pittsburgh this week about drilling for natural gas in the Northeast's giant Marcellus Shale formation has me feeling like an older sibling -- the firstborn child who has to live through every worry and complaint from Mom and Dad and make all the mistakes, then younger brothers and sisters come along and seem to have an easier time of it.

Here's Thursday's headline from the online version of USA Today: "Companies, environmentalists agree on new fracking rules."

Similar stories were published in the Star-Telegram and elsewhere.

Groups including the Environmental Defense Fund, the Pennsylvania Environmental Council and one called the Group against Smog and Pollution, along with philanthropic groups such as the Heinz Endowments and the William Penn Foundation, have reached agreement with drilling and pipeline companies on "a voluntary set of tough new standards for fracking" and other natural gas operations, the story says.

"Fracking," of course, is the short name for hydraulic fracturing, a natural gas extraction technique pioneered in the Barnett Shale in Fort Worth and areas to the south and west. We were the firstborn of the fracking family back in the 1980s, began using it extensively in the late 1990s and started a gas drilling boom with it in 2004. Now fracking has spread around the world.

The Barnett is a big field, about 5,000 square miles. The Marcellus is huge, about 95,000 square miles, with recoverable reserves of 84,000 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Environmentalists haven't been much of a hindrance to Barnett Shale drilling. Still, there have been conflicts with people who have concerns about air quality, groundwater contamination and other issues around drilling sites and pipelines.

Some of those conflicts brought about changes here and there in state law and municipal ordinances. But there have never been negotiations between the two sides aimed at coming together on new standards.

It's different for our brothers and sisters in the Marcellus Shale, which stretches from New York south through Pennsylvania to West Virginia and west to Ohio and Kentucky. Environmentalists are a strong force in many of those areas.

So strong, in fact, that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has carried on a five-year moratorium on fracking in his state, waiting on the results of environmental studies.

The Albany Times Union reported Thursday on a new Quinnipiac University survey showing fracking opponents outnumber supporters in New York by 46-39 percent. Tensions are high.

When an energy industry spokeswoman said Cuomo is "gripped by a poll-driven fear," the Times Union reported, the governor fired back by saying industry leaders should talk to the people of New York "and explain to them why their fears are all unfounded."

In New York and Pennsylvania, several towns have used zoning powers to block drilling where residents are worried about fracking. Some companies and property owners have responded with lawsuits. Initial rulings in some cases favored the towns, and the cases have made their way up through the court system.

Amid those circumstances, an agreement between environmentalists and the energy industry is surprising but admirable.

The agreement says drilling and pipeline companies will undergo voluntary reviews against a list of stringent standards aimed at protecting air and water quality. Those that do well in the review will receive a stamp of approval from the new Pittsburgh-based Center for Sustainable Shale Development created jointly by industry and environmental groups.

I'm sorry we didn't think of that. Maybe our siblings have come up with an idea we could use. Maybe they've learned from our mistakes.

Mike Norman is editorial director of the Star-Telegram.

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Twitter: @mnorman9

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