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, but the Obama administration and many state regulators say the practice is safe when done properly.
The Pittsburgh-based Heinz Endowments is providing some of the funding for the Center for Sustainable Shale Development, and it has also provided significant funding to groups and researchers that are critical of fracking.
Foundation President Robert Vagt wrote in an email that isolating extreme voices may be "a secondary consequence" of the new plan, but that's not the focus.
"Our sole motivation at The Heinz Endowments - one I believe is shared by all CSSD partners - is to engage directly the challenges of developing" shale oil and gas, "which are being argued primarily in sound bites for the media rather than in constructive dialogue."
"The consistent approach of CSSD has been to use the best science and available technology to develop standards that protect the environment," Vagt said.
In addition to Shell, Chevron and the Heinz Endowments, the participants in the new center include the Environmental Defense Fund, the Clean Air Task Force, CONSOL Energy, PennFuture and other groups.
The center aims to work much like Underwriters Laboratories, which puts its familiar UL seal of approval on electrical appliances that meet its standards.
Drilling companies will be encouraged to submit to an independent review of their operations. If they are found to be abiding by a list of 15 stringent measures, they will receive the center's blessing. The new group says that it will be transparent and release the names of those who apply for the certification, starting later this year, and that the program is meant to compliment state and federal regulations, not replace them.
The project will cover Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio, where a frenzy of drilling is under way in the huge, gas-rich Marcellus and Utica shale formations. If fracking is approved in New York and Maryland, which have put a hold on new drilling, it could apply there, too.
For now, some environmental groups and drillers are waiting and seeing, or politely declining.
The Natural Resources Defense Council hasn't yet considered being a part of the center, spokeswoman Kate Slusark wrote in an email.
"Broadly speaking, voluntary programs like this one have the potential to help raise standards for companies that participate," Slusark noted, while adding that there is a "dire need" for federal and state fracking rules that apply to all energy companies.
William Chameides, dean of Duke University's school of the environment, said he is withholding judgment until more details are available.
"It never hurts to talk. It never hurts to negotiate," Chameides said. "In general, I see this as a positive development but as in most things the devil is in the details."