This abundant resource – DOE’s Energy Information Administration estimates that shale gas will be 20 percent of U.S. natural gas production by 2020 – could help reduce our reliance on coal for electric power generation, and even on the oil that fuels our transportation. However, it is also under great scrutiny for the fracking fluids’ potential impact on drinking water during injection and disposal.

Now is the time for industry leadership to fill a void left by understaffed state and federal regulators who continue to play hot potato with their oversight responsibilities. And there are some signs that the industry is beginning to step forward. In early April, 24 companies, including Shell, BP and ConocoPhillips, agreed to work with 30 states to disclose chemical additives used in the fracking process. The Marcellus Shale Coalition – an oil and gas industry group active in the fracking debate and previously resistant to greater oversight – also recently announced that its members would stop dumping treated fracking fluids into Pennsylvania rivers and instead recycle or inject them deep underground. Matt Pitzarella, spokesman for Range Resources, one of the most active drillers in Pennsylvania went on to say:

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"I don't think that it's a stretch to say that the traditional way this industry has operated isn't going to work in the long run…We aren't going to fly beneath the radar, nor should we. And when we don't talk about these issues, someone else does."

Though these are important initial salvos, there is a need for more comprehensive action. Proactive leadership from one of the major oil and gas players, if done well, could create a benchmark that the others, including the disparate group of smaller players up and down the fracking value chain can, and even must, follow. And in so doing, such a leader would elevate itself as a pioneering first mover. 

By engaging key environmental stakeholders, the industry can go a long way towards assuaging concerns that there isn’t sufficient transparency into the fracking process and its associated environmental impacts. In addition to responsible behavior from a global corporate citizen, getting this right can build the credibility that may allow the industry freer reign to tap these immense reserves.

There is too much at stake to cobble together a stopgap approach that buys the industry some time at the risk of its long-term credibility. Rather, there is a window of opportunity, before public opinion is fully formed or swayed by a Deep Horizon-type incident, to get this right. Announcements are the easy part. Long-term success will hinge on a thoughtful and inclusive approach to developing achievable principles that meaningfully address the broad range of stakeholder concerns, and hard metrics that track progress.

Striking this balance will pay dividends – for local communities and environments, economic growth and the industry's bottom line.

Dan Saccardi is an Associate with GreenOrder, an LRN Advisory Group. GreenOrder is a strategy consulting firm working with GE and other large corporations in achieving competitive advantage through environmental innovation.