Drilling through shale to capture natural gas continues to boom, but a federal panel is starting to lay out its first vision of a regulatory roadmap and the use of chemicals is coming to the forefront.

In a report closely watched by energy companies who fear higher costs from more government oversight, the panel said the risk of the chemical fluids used to crack open shale fissures leaking into drinking water was “remote,” but offered a host of ways the industry could win greater public trust for the controversial process of “fracking.”

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The interim report, followed by a final set of recommendations in November, talked about shoring up regulations in an industry that barely existed three years ago, but also wanted to not overstep.

The U.S. Energy Department’s natural gas advisory subcommittee urged regulators to:
• Overhaul the management of the millions of gallons of water used in the process and an update to rules to fully protect surface and ground water, with state and local governments creating systems to measure water quality prior to shale gas production, to better evaluate the impact.
• Require drillers to release more information about the impact of hydraulic fracturing, which is essential to tapping the nation’s plentiful shale gas reserves.
• Begin measuring methane and other air emissions from shale gas operations.

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While companies said a growing public backlash against fracking is almost certain to provoke greater regulation, companies ExxonMobil, Chesapeake, Chevron and Devon Energy, the nation’s leading shale gas producers, hope to prevent costly new measures that could render their fields uneconomical.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, involves injecting a mix of water, sand and chemicals into rock formations at a high pressures to release oil and gas.

Innovations in the technique have led to an explosion of shale gas development, but the expansion has also prompted public backlash. Environmental groups and some landowners believe the practice has fouled drinking supplies, making livestock and children sick and tap water flammable.

The panel said it “shares the prevailing view that the risk of fracturing fluid leakage into drinking water sources through fractures made in deep shale reservoirs is remote.”

“Nevertheless the subcommittee believes there is no economic or technical reason to prevent public disclosure of all chemicals in fracturing fluids, with an exception for genuinely proprietary information,” the report said.

In response to public concerns, some companies have begun releasing more details about the composition of fracking fluids, but the panel said “progress needs to be accelerated.”

The panel’s report called for the creation of a national database to compile information about shale gas wells.

The industry should also establish an organization to improve operating techniques, the report said.

The release of more data will not only help to reassure the public, but will help regulators develop new rules and better address potential environmental hazards, Deutch said.

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