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We're going to hear now about a controversial innovation in the energy industry. It's called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking for short. It's created a drilling boom for natural gas and oil from Texas to Pennsylvania, and it may also be polluting drinking water.

Today, a U.S. Energy Department committee will discuss how to make fracking safer.

NPR's Jeff Brady reports on an issue that has overshadowed much of the wider debate over energy.

JEFF BRADY: In the U.S., pretty much all the oil and gas that was easy to get to is gone. Fracking makes it possible to extract petroleum a mile underground in dense layers of shale. Drillers pump truckloads of water mixed with sand and chemicals into the rock. Under intense pressure, that creates tiny fractures that allow oil and gas trapped there to escape.

Ms. TISHA CONOLY SCHULLER (President, CEO, Colorado Oil and Gas Association): Hydraulic fracturing is truly the rocket science of what's happening in energy.

BRADY: Tisha Conoly Schuller heads the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, and she's seen fracking bring new life to old oil and natural gas fields. She says domestic production is a good thing, especially of natural gas, because it burns cleaner. Fracking has made natural gas more abundant and relatively cheap at a time the U.S. needs reliable and affordable sources of energy.

In Pennsylvania, the number of natural gas wells drilled into the Marcellus Shale has increased from a few dozen in 2007 to more than 1,400 last year. Drive around the region, and you'll see that not everyone shares the industry's fascination with fracking. There are lawn signs opposing gas drilling, and even a home-made sign reading: Thou shalt not frack. Many of these folks were inspired by a movie last year called "Gasland." It included this scene of a man in Colorado, holding a lighter next to a faucet.

(Soundbite of movie, "Gasland")

(Soundbite of water flowing)

Mr. MIKE MARKHAM: We'll just give it a second, here.

BRADY: Then the water itself catches fire.

(Soundbite of movie, "Gasland")

Mr. JOSH FOX: Whoa. Jesus.

BRADY: Nearby drilling is blamed, and throughout the movie, filmmaker Josh Fox gives fracking special attention, calling into question how safe it is and whether it's adequately regulated. All the focus on fracking worries the petroleum industry.

Tisha Conoly Schuller says the term fracking now means more than just the process of fracturing shale to get at oil and gas.

Ms. SCHULLER: I think hydraulic fracturing has become a synonym for oil and gas development, or anything that one doesn't like about oil and gas development.

BRADY: The industry worries that could prompt policymakers to restrict fracking and bring a halt to the gas booms underway. That's already happening in cities around the country: Buffalo, New York; Pittsburg, Pennsylvania and most recently Morgantown, West Virginia. New York State is deciding on new rules to govern fracking there. And it's not just industry concerned about the focus on fracking. Some environmentalists say it may be taking attention away from the other problems that go along with drilling, like air pollution and toxic spills.

Amy Mall with the Natural Resources Defense Council says one good thing about the fracking issue is all the attention it's brought to oil and gas production.

Ms. AMY MALL (Senior Policy Analyst, Natural Resources Defense Council): I'm hoping that it's really just a starting point, a jumping off point to look at all these other issues.

BRADY: Mall says, ideally, the focus on fracking will lead to more research about how oil and gas development affects people.

Ms. MALL: There's very little science about any of these impacts, not just the fracking, but the air quality, the waste management issues. And we really need a lot more attention to all of these, but it does seem the immediate priority of the agencies is to focus on fracking.

BRADY: Certainly, that's what the Energy Department's Natural Gas Subcommittee will discuss this morning. Eventually, the recommendations will be sent to the federal agencies who have a role in regulating fracking.

Jeff Brady, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

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