The natural gas industry in Pennsylvania is trying to disprove criticism of its fracking practices by preemptively issuing new voluntary guidelines even as the sector comes under greater scrutiny.

A group representing the natural gas industry in the Marcellus Shale issued its first recommendations on industry best practices in an effort improve its conservation ethic and deflect criticism that operators are damaging natural landscapes with wells, roads and compressor stations.

The Marcellus Shale Coalition‘s “recommended practices” are guidelines rather than requirements, and address site planning, development and restoration. Still-planned guidelines will focus on areas such as air quality and water management.

A 34-page document, released on April 26, recommends 11 steps for operators, from identifying sites for gas installations, to monitoring, maintenance and repair. The coalition said it sought guidance from member companies and other stakeholders to come up with standards that make sense operationally and environmentally.

“These content-rich guidance documents represent a level of detail and transparency derived from many sources which will be updated and refined as development continues,” said MSC chairman Dave Spigelmyer, in a statement.

Raising the Bar?

The guidelines “raise the bar” above existing industry practices to encourage energy companies to promote conservation, said Patrick Creighton, a spokesman for the MSC.

Opponents of natural gas drilling in the Marcellus – which underlies about two-thirds of Pennsylvania and parts of surrounding states – say the gas industry has damaged roads, forests and waterways in the course of drilling thousands of wells in the shale-gas boom that began in 2008.

Check out the top five Marcellus Shale developments of last year here.

Critics fear further damage as development of one of America’s biggest gas fields accelerates in coming decades.

The guidelines include formulating a site plan, discussing it with landowners, implementing environmental controls, and finally restoring the site in line with the wishes of the landowner.

In planning a site, operators are urged to use existing roads where possible, and to follow the landowner’s wishes in retaining natural features. It encourages the use of multi-well pads to minimize land disturbance.

In restoring a site after it has been drilled and fracked, gas companies are urged to encourage the recovery of threatened species including the wild turkey and the American chestnut.

Act 13 by Other Means?

Pennsylvania State Representative Jesse White, a Democrat who is an outspoken opponent of the state’s gas industry, attacked the guidelines as an exercise in public relations, and said they represent a set of standards that would have been imposed by local zoning ordinances if those measures hadn’t been outlawed by the state’s new Act 13, a wide-ranging law that imposes an impact fee on the gas industry and regulates many other aspects of its operation.

White also rejected the coalition’s claims that it sought the views of many stakeholders in drawing up its guidelines. “That’s just not true,” he told Breaking Energy. “They talk to the people who agree with them, and if you don’t agree with them you are the enemy.” White, who represents an intensively drilled area of southwestern Pennsylvania, said he had not been consulted on the new guidelines.

Separately, the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission voted on Thursday to delay implementation of a part of Act 13 that requires the commission to collect impact fees from the gas industry and disburse them to municipalities.

The regulator is seeking clarification from a Pennsylvania court that temporarily blocked a part of the new law restricting the ability of municipalities to control the location of gas installations within their areas. That part of the law is being challenged in court by a group of municipalities.

Despite the PUC delay, spokeswoman Jennifer Kocher said the fees are not due until September 1 and so the scheduled collection and disbursement of the fees is not likely to be impacted.