A controversial program to certify Marcellus Shale natural gas producers for adhering to the best environmental practices is set to open for business Tuesday under the leadership of a newly hired executive director from Philadelphia.

The Center for Sustainable Shale Development (CSSD), which was announced last year as a kind of Underwriters Laboratory of drilling practices, will begin accepting applications Tuesday for its independent third-party certification and verification program.

CSSD, based in Pittsburgh, also named Susan Packard LeGros, an environmental lawyer with the Stevens & Lee law firm in Philadelphia, as its first executive director.

The nonprofit center, founded as a collaborative between energy companies and environmental organizations, came under fire at its inception from anti-drilling activists who objected to use of the term sustainable with fossil-fuel development. They derided the program as a "greenwashing" initiative designed to give drilling companies an environmental fig leaf.

The center's founders - including Environmental Defense Fund, the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, PennFuture, the Heinz Endowments, and the William Penn Foundation of Philadelphia - envision an organization that will push the shale-gas industry to embrace improved environmental standards that exceed current regulatory requirements.

Bureau Veritas (BV), a global company that provides testing, inspection, and certification, has been enlisted as the auditor to verify that shale-drilling companies comply with standards aimed principally at curbing greenhouse-gas emissions from drilling and at reducing impacts on water resources.

"BV is second to none for the depth of experience and independence and credibility," said Andrew G. Place, the center's interim director.

Bureau Veritas also audits certification programs for the Center for Offshore Safety and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative.

Place, the corporate director of public-policy research at Pittsburgh gas producer EQT Corp., said the certification process was designed to withstand skeptical scrutiny. The audits will be transparent, he said.

"How can we build a framework that is just airtight, really locked down? We built in layer upon layer of oversight," he said.

Bureau Veritas auditors will be required to visit drilling operations to verify compliance. "There must be boots-on-the-ground oversight," Place said.

After BV makes its recommendations, a three-member committee will decide whether a drilling company's operations meet the center's standards.

Two of the committee's members will be the center's independent board members, who include former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill and Christine Todd Whitman, former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and governor of New Jersey. The third member will be former Pennsylvania Consumer Advocate Irwin A. "Sonny" Popowsky, who will serve on an unpaid pro bono basis.

The CSSD grew out of a recommendation by a shale-gas committee that reported to U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu in 2011. The committee called for regionally focused councils of excellence in effective environmental, health, and safety practices.

CSSD, which is focused specifically on drilling in Appalachia, was controversial from the start.

In addition to EQT, three other energy companies helped devise the standards and are represented on its board: Chevron Appalachia, Consol Energy, and Shell North America. Those companies are expected to be the first to apply for certification.

Anti-drilling groups criticized the Heinz Endowments for consorting with the industry. In August, the Heinz Endowments suddenly dismissed its longtime head of environmental grant-making, leading to speculation about a connection between the criticism and the departures.

Place said LeGros was chosen as the center's new director because of her broad experience in the polarized energy world.

"I have some perspective from being on different sides of this debate that can be helpful to try to identify a middle ground," said LeGros, who was a federal regulator, a corporate lawyer, and director of a regional solar-industry group.

"I think that's really the way to go or otherwise you're at a perpetual standoff," she said.