PITTSBURGH -- Like a marriage the in-laws don't approve of, a new plan to strengthen standards for fracking is creating unusual divisions among environmentalists and supporters of the oil and gas industry.
At first glance, it's hard to fathom all the angst over the Pittsburgh-based Center for Sustainable Shale Development. Environmental groups, foundations, and major oil and gas companies came together to support stringent measures to protect air and water from pollution in the Appalachian region, and they invited other groups to join in and help limit pollution from fracking.
Not everyone was flattered by the invitation.
"WHOOO-HOOO, Frackers and Environmentalists collaborate!" noted the anti-drilling website No Fracking Way, in a post titled "Fracking Center and Fluffy Kittens." The Sierra Club called the new plan "akin to slapping a Band-Aid on a gaping wound," and a coalition of grassroots groups called No Frack Ohio claimed that the plan "simply puts green lipstick on a pig."
The fight is so toxic in part because fracking has become a symbol for the even bigger debate over climate change. Both sides see a historic crossroads, like an energy version of D-Day or Waterloo, in which the winner will determine energy and climate policy for decades to come.
One side envisions an immediate, all-out embrace of renewable energy and a virtual boycott of all fossil fuels. The other says that whether we like it or not, the transition to renewables will take decades, and in the meantime, we need to use technology and new partnerships to make fracking as safe and clean as possible.
The pro-drilling Marcellus Drilling News website wrote that if energy companies such as Shell and Chevron "want to craft an organization that compromises (too far) with eco-nuts, go right ahead and disadvantage yourselves. But don't require everyone else to follow your lead." Some drilling companies politely said they aren't joining the new coalition, either.
"No," Range Resources spokesman Matt Pitzarella wrote in an email to The Associated Press, though he added they "commend the groups for coming together." In Pennsylvania, which has more new shale gas wells than other states in the region, four of the top 10 drillers have signed on with the center -- meaning six haven't.
One expert suggested that the idea of peace between environmentalists and energy companies threatens extremists on both sides of the fracking debate.
"As moderates in the gas industry and in the environmental community work together more in coming years to improve drilling practices, I think you will see the extremes in both camps become increasingly marginal and isolated, and I think that's a good thing," environmentalist Michael Shellenberger wrote in an email. Shellenberger isn't a part of the shale partnership, but he supports the idea.
Other commentators see promise in opposing sides working together, too.
The Washington Post editorial board called the new plan "a heartening breakthrough in the war over fracking" whose new rules are "a large step toward striking the right balance, and everyone involved deserves credit."