With natural gas now front and center on President Obama's energy agenda (see Shale Daily, March 31), his administration has called for a broad-based panel to be formed to examine potential risks associated with hydraulic fracturing (fracking).

The Secretary of Energy Advisory Board (SEAB), an independent advisory committee that serves Energy Secretary Steven Chu, has been tasked with the responsibility of forming a subcommittee to study the issue. The subcommittee will be supported by the Department of Energy (DOE), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Interior Department, and its members will extend beyond SEAB membership to include industry, environmental experts and states, according to the president's blueprint for a secure energy future, which was released Wednesday.

"The subcommittee will work to identify, within 90 days, any immediate steps that can be taken to improve the safety and environmental performance of fracking, and to develop, within six months, consensus [recommendations] on practices for shale extraction to ensure the protection of public health and the environment," it said.

"This is in addition to the ongoing EPA fracturing study. Other recommendations are 1) disclosure of fracturing chemicals; 2) public meetings to discuss expansion of shale development on federal lands; and 3) DOE will sponsor research on the impacts of fracturing on water resources. Bottom line: new rules potentially coming in 90 to 180 days...and beyond," said an energy analyst with Tudor Pickering Holt & Co. Securities Inc (see Daily GPI, Feb. 9).

Other observers suggested that the white light of a thorough federal study might just settle some of the dust around the issue.

Interior's Bureau of Land Management (BLM) said it will hold a series of regional public meetings later this month -- in Bismarck, ND; Little Rock, AR, and Denver, CO -- to discuss the use of fracturing techniques to simulate gas production on federal lands.

"These forums will help inform BLM as we work closely with industry, the states, other federal agencies and the public to develop a way forward on natural gas so that the United States can safely and fully realize the benefits of this important energy resource," BLM Director Bob Abbey said.

At the same time, the "DOE and EPA are establishing a mechanism to provide technical assistance to states to assess the adequacy of existing state regulations. EPA will continue to perform a strong backstop role under federal environmental laws and will take actions, as necessary, to protect public health and the environment," the blueprint said.