Earlier this month, industry and environmental groups in Illinois announced that they worked together on drilling legislation now pending there. The Pittsburgh project, though, which has been in the works for nearly two years, would be voluntary -- and would bypass the often turbulent legislative process altogether.
"We believe it does send a signal to the federal government and other states," said Armand Cohen, director of the Boston-based Clean Air Task Force. "There's no reason why anyone should be operating at standards less than these."
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.
Mark Brownstein, an associate vice president with the Environmental Defense Fund, said many oil and gas companies claim to be leaders in protecting the environment, and that "this can be one opportunity for them to demonstrate that leadership," by submitting to an audit.
During fracking, large volumes of water, along with sand and hazardous chemicals, are injected into the ground to break rock apart and free the oil and gas. In some places, the practice has been blamed for air pollution and gas leaks that have ruined well water.
The Pittsburgh project will be overseen by a 12-member board consisting of four seats for environmentalists, four for industry and four for independent figures, including former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill and Christine Todd Whitman, the former New Jersey governor and Environmental Protection Agency chief.
The center's proposed 2013 budget is $800,000, with the two sides expected to contribute equal amounts, said Andrew Place, the project's interim leader and director of energy and environmental policy at EQT, an Appalachian energy company.
Mark Frankel, an expert on ethics and law at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, said the idea sounds promising, but that it remains to be seen if the new standards are a significant improvement over existing laws. He said there also are ethical and policy questions.
"What does it mean to have an independent board?" he asked. "Who's on it? How do they get on it?"
George Jugovic, president of the environmental group PennFuture, one of the participants, said the industry's involvement makes this different from past debates over fracking.
"Buy-in from them is huge. That provides leadership from within," Jugovic said. "It's very different from someone from the outside saying, 'You can do better.'"
Some critics of fracking, however, aren't swayed by the new plan.
"Fracking is an inherently dangerous industrial process that takes us away from sustainable energy solutions," said Kathy Nolan of Catskill Mountainkeeper, which is fighting fracking in New York state. "Its costs to humans and our environment just aren't worth it."