A controversial technique for producing oil and natural gas called hydraulic fracturing — or fracking — has led to drilling booms from Texas to Pennsylvania in recent years. But there are concerns that it may be polluting drinking water.
As policymakers in Washington discuss how to make fracking safer, there is concern that fracking itself has become a distraction.
In the U.S., pretty much all of the oil and gas that was easy to get to is gone. Fracking makes it possible to extract petroleum from hard-to-reach places — say, 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.
"Hydraulic fracturing is truly the rocket science of what's happening in energy," says Tisha Conoly Schuller, president and CEO of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association.
Schuller has seen fracking bring new life to old oil and natural gas fields, boosting domestic production in the U.S. She says that's a good thing — especially for natural gas, because it burns cleaner.
In Pennsylvania the number of natural gas wells drilled into the Marcellus Shale has increased from 34 in 2007 to 1,446 last year.
But drive around the region and you'll see that not everyone shares the industry's appreciation of fracking. There are lawn signs opposing gas drilling, and in Sullivan County, N.Y., a handmade sign reads, "Thou shalt not frack with our water. Amen."
Many fracking opponents were inspired by the movie Gasland. In one compelling scene, Weld County, Colo., resident Mike Markham shows how he can light his tap water on fire.
Throughout the movie, filmmaker and activist Josh Fox gives fracking special attention — calling into question how safe it is and whether it's adequately regulated.
Says Schuller: "I think hydraulic fracturing has become a synonym for oil and gas development or anything one doesn't like about oil and gas development."
The industry worries that the focus on fracking could prompt policymakers to restrict the practice and bring a halt to the gas booms under way. That's already happening around the country in places such as Buffalo, N.Y., Pittsburgh and most recently Morgantown, W.Va. New York is deciding on new rules to govern fracking there.
It's not just the 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.
"I'm hoping that it's really just a starting point — a jumping-off point — to look at all these other issues," says Amy Mall, senior policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
And Mall hopes the focus on fracking will lead to more research about how oil and gas development affects people.
"There's very little science about any of these impacts — not just the fracking, but the air quality, the waste-management issues," Mall says. "But it does seem the immediate priority of the agencies is to focus on fracking."
Certainly that's what the Energy Department's Natural Gas Subcommittee will discuss as it meets in Washington, D.C., this week. Eventually the group's recommendations will be sent to the federal agencies that have a role in regulating fracking.