In a move that immediately drew praise from across the energy industry, President Obama on Friday issued an executive order to better coordinate federal oversight of "fracking," the popular but controversial natural-gas extraction method.
The order establishes an "interagency working group" with members from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Interior Department, Energy Department, National Economic Council and other bodies. At least 10 federal departments or agencies currently are mulling new regulations of the gas industry or have commissioned studies of its environmental impact.
The sheer number of potential rule makers has caused many industry insiders to fear confusing or overlapping guidelines; some analysts say that could greatly hamper domestic oil and gas production. The new working group, Mr. Obama said, is designed to "ensure coordination among the appropriate federal entities."
"By helping to power our transportation system, greater use of natural gas can also reduce our dependence on foreign oil. And with appropriate safeguards, natural gas can provide a cleaner source of energy than other fossil fuels," the order reads in part. "It is vital that we take full advantage of our natural gas resources, while giving American families and communities confidence that natural gas and cultural resources, air and water quality, and public health and safety will not be compromised."
Mr. Obama's announcement comes just as the November presidential election kicks into high gear, with energy policy and the administration's perceived antagonism toward fossil fuels shaping up to be a key issue in the race. It also comes as the fracking boom has produced stocks of natural gas so large that prices are now hitting record lows.
Presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney lately has made increased American energy production a focal point during campaign speeches, and he has accused the administration of seeking to limit U.S. research and production. Many Republicans in Congress have painted the administration's EPA as the determined enemy of natural gas, with some members accusing Mr. Obama of waging a war on the industry.
Friday's olive branch, which could help reduce tension between the administration and the oil and gas sector, was met with enthusiasm from industry leaders.
"We're pleased the White House recognizes the need to coordinate the efforts of 10 federal agencies that are reviewing, studying or proposing new regulations on natural gas development and [fracking]," said Jack Gerard, president and CEO of the American Petroleum Institute. "We have called on the White House to rein in these uncoordinated activities to avoid unnecessary and overlapping federal regulatory efforts and are pleased to see forward progress."
The Marcellus Shale Coalition, which represents drilling companies in Pennsylvania and other areas of the Marcellus, one of the richest known gas deposits in the world, is offering to work closely with the administration in the coming months.
"We remain eager to provide real-time, on-the-ground insight in an effort to ensure that common-sense regulations are in place, which is essential to leveraging the countless benefits of America's natural gas resources," coalition President Kathryn Klaber said.
It remains to be seen, however, whether the move lessens the potential impact of looming federal rules. Later this year, the EPA will release a long-awaited report on the environmental safety of fracking, the use of water, sand and chemicals to crack underground rock and release vast quantities of fuel. Many industry analysts expect the report to call for sharp new restraints on the drilling method.
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