New initiative seeks to foster collaboration between environmentalists and practitioners of fracking

When stakeholders work together to solve problems, everyone benefits.

Although many environmental activists continue to exhibit an unflinching level of opposition to the expansion of unconventional methods of oil and gas production, such as horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, there are now a number of organizations advocating for a different approach to be taken in the United States.

Last week, a group of environmental advocates, energy companies and philanthropic associations announced that they have taken a significant step toward the establishment of a more constructive dialogue with the release of a set of standards meant to ensure the safety of fracking operations.

This marks a noteworthy departure from the adversarial back-and-forth that has dominated public discussion of this topic in the past. The Center for Sustainable Shale Development (CSSD) was founded with the support of a diverse group of stakeholders, including organizations from Shell to the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF).

Contributors remain focused on common interests

The standards that are now being promoted by the CSSD cover 15 distinct areas of concern, including the value of recycling used water, the utility of proactive monitoring programs and the importance of controlling emissions from oil production equipment and on-site storage tanks.

Later this year, the CSSD will begin issuing certification documents to companies that complete a process involving an audit by an independent third party. Although it remains to be seen how many firms will attempt to become certified, there is at least some interest already.

"Shell, they're chomping at the bit to get out the door," said Andrew Place, interim executive director of the CSSD, which is based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

The company could certainly benefit from an image boost, following several damaging incidents that have occurred in recent years, including one in which a drillship  ran aground on an island off the coast of Alaska. And, Shell is just one of four companies that were involved in the effort to create the CSSD, which points to the possibility of wider participation within the industry.

What caused this change in tone and how can the collaborative process be replicated?

In a press release, Mark Brownstein, associate vice president and chief counsel of the EDF's US energy and climate program, asserted that the apparent inevitably of widespread fracking was what motivated his group to start working with the industry, rather than against it.

"Ninety percent of new oil and gas wells developed onshore in the United States are using some form of hydraulic fracturing," noted Brownstein.

With so much momentum behind the trend toward increasing use of fracking, there is essentially no chance that the practice will be stopped altogether, even in face of incessant opposition from environmentalists. Brownstein suggests that the purpose of collaborating with energy companies "is making sure [fracking] is done with the utmost attention to the environment."

Getting skeptical stakeholders to come to the table may be difficult in other areas, but enabling everyone to take part in the process is vital. The key will be for all parties to remember that they share the same goals.

There isn't a single energy company on the planet that doesn't have a vested interest in ensuring that no spills, leaks or other accidents take place on its property. Fortunately, technological developments have provided new tools that bolster both a company's bottom line and the security of its oil and gas wells.