A comprehensive review of hydraulic fracturing practices in natural gas wells in the Marcellus, Barnett and Haynesville shales for the first time is to independently assess alleged groundwater contamination and seismic events, as well as the scope and effectiveness of gas patch regulations, according to the University of Texas at Austin (UT).

The goal of the study is to promote a “fact-based approach” to shale gas development regulatory policies, the Energy Institute’s director said. The institute is funding the study, which is to be conducted by a team of UT experts.

“What we’re trying to do is separate fact from fiction,” said Raymond L. Orbach, who directs the UT Energy Institute, which is funding the study. “Unlocking huge reserves of natural gas could be vital our nation’s energy security. If proven to be safe and environmentally benign, fracking could unleash a bountiful supply of domestic energy for generations, if not centuries, to come.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has initiated a fracking study, which may lead to more stringent drilling regulations as soon as 2012, the institute noted.

“To date, oil and gas regulators and other experts in groundwater protection have found little evidence of a direct link between fracking and groundwater contamination, but no comprehensive study of the technology and its effects has been conducted,” it said.

The Energy Institute’s Chip Groat, an associate director, will lead the multidisciplinary team, which is to include experts from the university’s Bureau of Economic Geology, Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, School of Law, Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy and College of Communication.

Specific claims of groundwater contamination, seismic events, fugitive air emissions and other concerns associated with fracking in the Marcellus, Barnett and Haynesville shales will be investigated and include a “systemic evaluation of data” from scientific studies, news reports, “advocacy” websites and citizens groups.

Also to be reviewed are the “influences on current and proposed national policies” related to shale gas development in comparison with peer-reviewed literature.

“Our focus will be on evaluating evidence that verifies or refutes claims of environmental damage from fracking, as well as identifying actual causes of problems,” Groat said.

The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) was involved in the design of the study and will provide comments to researchers before a final report is made public, he said. A peer group representing scientists from cooperating universities in the affected areas also will review the team’s findings.

The research team plans to conduct the first comprehensive review of regulations relevant to fracking in place today. The work is to identify and describe policies in states with shale gas reserves to understand the scope of protective measures and determine whether regulations accurately reflect the science of fracking and its potential effects.

Claims of environmental damage and their geographic, topical and temporal distribution are to be mapped and analyzed to identify patterns in assessing their effects on public policy.

“One thing we’re trying to do is determine the relevance of existing policy, as well as changes that have recently been proposed,” Groat said. “At present, there’s no full regulatory picture of fracking. We’re trying to fill in the gaps and predict the likely trajectory of future policy.”

The final report is to include a series of recommendations to develop regulations governing fracking.

“Some well publicized incidents have created considerable concern about the use of fracking,” Groat said. “Our goal is to inject more science into the debate so that policymakers have a sound foundation upon which to develop appropriate rules and regulations.”