With recent reports showing that natural gas drilling has increased in all three Appalachian states, including Pennsylvania, concerns about the industry’s impact on the environment and public health arise once again. That’s where Susan LeGros, a former environmental and energy attorney and current president and executive director of the Center for Responsible Shale Development (CRSD), comes in.

Based in Pittsburgh, the CRSD focuses on shale development in the Appalachian Basin and provides a forum where energy companies collaborate with environmental organizations to figure out the best approach to safe drilling. The center’s partners include four major energy companies (Shell, Chevron, EQT and Consol) and three environmental groups, the Clean Air Task Force, the Environmental Defense Fund and the Pennsylvania Environmental Council.

CRSD president and executive director Susan LeGros.

CRSD president and executive director Susan LeGros.

Since joining the CRSD in 2014, LeGros has led the organization in implementing a series of rigorous performance standards meant to minimize the impact of shale gas drilling on the environment and communities. She spoke to NEXTpittsburgh about the center’s work and its future goals.

The center serves as a moderator between shale energy producers and environmental groups. Would you say that’s a fair conclusion?

LeGros: We’re sort of a facilitator. Our mission is to bring together folks from both of those perspectives and help them to find areas of agreement on the most responsible way to deal with shale gas development, particularly in the Appalachian Basin. Although they don’t always see eye to eye on everything there are many areas where their notions of the most responsible practice do overlap.

It isn’t just about keeping within state regulations; it’s actually striving to do more than what the regulations require, correct?

LeGros: Yes. Where can you, through voluntary action, do better. You don’t just look at the regulations. I don’t mean that as a criticism of the regulations, but I think when the organization was founded, it was generally true that the state regulatory structures were very behind the development related to hydraulic fracturing. So the goal here was to set a standard of responsible behavior. In most respects, our standards are still more stringent than what you would see in Ohio, West Virginia and throughout Pennsylvania.

Last December, the Energy Information Agency reported that the Marcellus Shale was the highest gas production region in the country. The size of the resource is massive. I am a big supporter of renewables and other kinds of energy approaches. But the trend is clear. And it is really necessary to figure out how to deal with that. And that’s what was behind the folks who created this organization. They wanted to figure out a way to cut through the divisiveness and try to use good science and operational experience to say there’s a better way to do this.

The new presidential administration has made it clear that it wants to loosen environmental protections and regulations. Does that concern your organization?

LeGros: Obviously environmental groups are concerned about federal regulations because no one has any idea what’s going to happen. It does look like there’s going to be some rollback. That makes what we’re trying to do all the more necessary and consequential.

We have 15 performance standards that we’ve adopted. Our goal is to regularly review them based on any new science or data, and also what the states and the federal government are doing. We have this certification program where we send auditors out to the facilities of companies that request it. They have to open their books and facilities to our auditors so there’s a high degree of transparency required. I think that’s really important because we’re in a time when state agencies have had budget cutbacks and had to cut back on some of their inspections and enforcement. And again, we’re not trying to substitute for that. But what we’re doing can provide a certain level of trust and confidence that facilities across the basin are meeting requirements in terms of things like recycling, flaring and emissions. I think that can be really meaningful, particularly now.

You have said that you wanted to get more companies involved with the center. How do you intend to do that?

LeGros: One of the things that we’ve done over the past year is work on a branding and messaging exercise that I think really helped us communicate what we’re about to companies, service providers and others. When I came on, I encountered a lot of confusion from people who weren’t sure of the difference between what we are doing and what the Marcellus Shale Coalition is doing. The Marcellus Shale Coalition is a trade association and they do lobbying. We don’t lobby.

Originally, a lot of companies wanted to see how the certification program works out. Well, the certification program has worked out very well. We certified the four companies initially. The certification period is for two years then we do an interim certification at the one-year point. Chevron was recently recertified for a second two-year period. That is going very smoothly. We’ve been able to put concerns about that to rest.

We’ve also had companies say they’re doing a lot of the things we require and just don’t think certification is necessary. But the investment community looks really closely at environmental stewardship and they are very focused on the oil and gas sector. They are very much in favor of this kind of structure with certification and third-party audits that provide some level of confidence to the public. That is one of the really powerful motivators that we have at this point to bring others into the fold.

How would you address skepticism surrounding companies wanting to participate in the center? What’s in it for them?

LeGros: I’m going to use the words of the companies – they feel the need to earn the social license to operate. They want to collaborate with people outside of the industry with specific views about how they ought to do their business and they want to be transparent.

There are summaries of all the audit reports on our website, so if people want to see what a company is doing with respect to wastewater treatment or drilling, you can go online and see a summary of that. There are some confidentiality concerns that are honored, but what we’re trying to do is provide a level of transparency that will give people some confidence about what is happening and how it might impact them. What we’d like to see is for municipalities or landowners to say, if you’re going to do this fracturing production on my land or in my jurisdiction, we’d like you to agree to not only meet the regulations but also to meet CRSD standards.

One of your goals is to become the national center for excellence in responsible shale development. What will it take to achieve that?

LeGros: Our view has always been that there are issues unique to different shale plays. It’s not a one size fits all approach. For Marcellus and Utica, you’re talking about areas that have been settled for centuries by many communities. This is not Texas where you can drive for miles and miles and not see a community. But in terms of what the standards and expectations should be, I think our model of constructive collaboration encourages people to see the benefits of doing the right thing. You can achieve certain savings and limit risk. And there are multiple organizations that are looking at how the oil and gas industry responds to eliminating emissions.