PITTSBURGH — Some of the nation’s biggest oil and gas companies have made peace with environmentalists, agreeing to a voluntary set of tough new standards for fracking in the Northeast that could lead to a major expansion of drilling.
The program announced Wednesday will work a lot like Underwriters Laboratories, which puts its UL seal of approval on electrical appliances that meet its standards.
In this case, drilling and pipeline companies will be encouraged to submit to an independent review of their operations.
If they are found to be abiding by a list of stringent measures to protect the air and water from pollution, they will receive the blessing of the new Pittsburgh-based Center for Sustainable Shale Development, created jointly by environmentalists and the energy industry.
Many of the new standards appear to be stricter than state and federal pollution regulations.
If the project wins wide acceptance, it could ease or avert some of the ferocious battles over fracking that have been waged in statehouses and city halls. And it could hasten the expansion of fracking by making drilling more palatable to states and communities that feared the environmental consequences.
In fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, drillers force millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals under high pressure into formations to make cracks in the shale to release oil and natural gas.
The new standards include limits on emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and the flaring, or burning off, of unwanted gas; reductions in engine emissions; groundwater monitoring and protection; improved well designs; stricter wastewater disposal; the use of less-toxic fracking fluids; and seismic monitoring before drilling begins.
Shell Oil Vice President Paul Goodfellow said this is the first time the company and environmental groups have reached agreement to create an entire system for reducing the effects of shale drilling.
“This is something new,” said Bruce Niemeyer, president of Chevron Appalachia. “This is a bit of a unique coming-together of a variety of different interests.”
In agreeing to the self-policing system, members of the industry said they realized they needed to do more to reassure the public about the safety of fracking.
On the other side, environmentalists said they came to the conclusion that the hundreds of billions of dollars in oil and gas underground is going to be extracted one way or another and that working with the industry is the quickest path to making the process safer.
“We do recognize that this resource is going to be developed,” said Robert Vagt, president of the Heinz Endowments, a charitable foundation that has bankrolled anti-fracking efforts. “We think that it can be done in a way that does not do violence to the environment.”
In addition to Shell and Chevron, the participants include the Environmental Defense Fund, the Clean Air Task Force, EQT Corp., Consol Energy and the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, and the organizers hope to recruit others.
It may be part of a trend. Earlier this month a coalition of industry and environmental groups in Illinois announced that they worked together on drilling legislation pending there. But the Pittsburgh project, which has been in the works for nearly two years, would be voluntary.
“We believe it does send a signal to the federal government and other states,” said Armand Cohen, the director of the Boston-based Clean Air Task Force. “There’s no reason why anyone should be operating at standards less than these.”
The project will cover Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio — where a frenzy of drilling is under way in the huge, gas-rich Marcellus and Utica Shale formations — as well as New York and other states in the East that have put a hold on new drilling.
Shell said it hopes to be one of the first companies to volunteer to have its operations in Appalachia go through the independent review.
Chevron said it expects to apply for certification, too, when the process is ready to start later this year.