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Environmental group limits ties to shale center

PITTSBURGH — Another environmental group has distanced itself from the Pittsburgh-based Center for Sustainable Shale Development, a hotly-debated partnership of major energy companies, green groups and foundations.

PennFuture, a leading Pennsylvania environmental group that helped found the center, is no longer a “strategic partner.” The Public Accountability Initiative, a Buffalo, New York nonprofit, disclosed the shift Wednesday and also criticized the center’s staff and funders for ties to the oil and gas industry.

PennFuture spokeswoman Elaine Labalme said it will still participate with the center when it believes it’s worth providing input.

The center says its members will follow voluntary standards that are tougher than existing state laws. The idea has been criticized by some environmentalists who say a voluntary program is no substitute for tough state or federal rules, and by some in industry who say there’s no need to go beyond existing regulations.

The center’s current 11-member board includes energy companies Chevron, Shell, EQT and Consol Energy, along with the Clean Air Task Force, the Environmental Defense Fund, former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill and Christine Todd Whitman, the former New Jersey governor and U.S. Environmental Protection administrator.

Susan LeGros, the partnership’s director, said they work with groups who have different viewpoints, and questioned the logic of the Public Accountability Initiative report.

“We’re focused on trying to be part of the rational middle” in developing reasonable ways to deal with the shale gas boom that has swept the region, LeGros said.

The drilling boom in the Marcellus Shale, largely brought on with the use of hydraulic fracturing, has generated tens of billions of dollars and flooded much of the nation with lower-priced natural gas. But it’s also brought concerns and protests over air and water pollution.

Over the past year, the Heinz Endowments and the William Penn Foundation stopped funding the center.

The Center for Sustainable Shale Development’s standards go beyond existing Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia law in several respects, according to a document posted on their website. The standards say that drillers must conduct periodic monitoring of nearby water resources “for at least one year following completion of the well,” must recycle a minimum of 90 percent of the water that comes back out of a well, and by next March, must eliminate the use of open pits for waste disposal, and instead contain drilling fluid and water in a closed system at the well pad.

The center has hired Bureau Veritas, a French global testing and inspection firm, to review applications and compliance by drillers. One unidentified energy firm has already applied, and two others are about to begin the process, LeGros said.