What's Behind This Controversial Partnership for Drilling Standards?

The Heinz Endowments and William Penn Foundation are two Pennsylvania funders well known for backing watershed, river and clean water protection efforts. (See William Penn Foundation: Philadelphia Grants)

But the two groups are part of a controversial new partnership to establish standards for hydraulic fracturing — in cooperation with gas-drilling companies — that has created some fractures of its own within the environmental community. Some see the effort as an admirable attempt at compromise amid the contentious Pennsylvania fracking boom. Others call the coalition an unholy union that is only creating a false sense of protection.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is the process of smashing open rock formations with high-pressure injections of water to release natural gas deposits deep within. Scientists and environmentalists have called it a serious threat to neighboring water supplies — fracking occurs in areas that feed drinking water supplies — but the energy boom has spread rapidly across the region.

Heinz and William Penn, meanwhile, have long been funders of clean water projects in Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh-based Heinz has supported Earthworks, the Foundation for Pennsylvania Watersheds, Earthjustice, and Trout Unlimited. And one of Philadelphia foundation William Penn's three strategic priorities is protection of the Delaware Watershed. They've funded the Sierra Club, the NRDC, and Trout Unlimited as well.

So when they ponied up for the Center for Sustainable Shale Development, a partnership that linked up foundations and local environmental groups with Shell and Chevron, not all were pleased.

The idea is that, while making little headway to halt or slow fracking since it has taken off, enviros could come to the table with gas companies to at least set some reasonable ground rules — albeit voluntary ones. Environmentalist proponents say it will set a model for government regulations, which should also be pursued.

But a number of environment groups have taken the stance that fracking — any and all — is too dirty and dangerous and undermines clean energy development. The Sierra Club called CSSD "slapping a Band-Aid on a gaping wound," while No Frack Ohio said it "puts green lipstick on a pig." Some business interests are similarly upset that the partnership will hinder economic growth. 

It's an understandably tender subject. Any self-respecting environmental group would cringe at the thought of putting its own logo side-by-side with the loathed shield and shell of these two fossil fuel companies. Chevron and Shell are notoriousgreenwashers, and the support of Heinz and Penn are being cited as proof that the initiative is bona fide green. Such a partnership will surely improve their images as warm and cuddly oil and gas companies.

But the economics driving the gas boom are hard to ignore, and foundations like William Penn and Heinz are by no means obligated to choose one stance in such a fight, especially regional foundations with many interests. Foundations, after all, like to get results. This could be a way to cover the table in terms of strategies to protect water supplies, while also appearing reasonable and centrist.

The danger here, which is no doubt why groups like Sierra Club are so upset, is that this high-profile collaboration could actually work against efforts to regulate, by providing cover for gas companies to keep doing more or less what they've been doing.