An Obama administration panel gave its qualified support Thursday to hydraulic fracturing, just as a poll found a majority of upstate New Yorkers backing the controversial natural gas extraction process in the state's gas-rich Marcellus Shale.
The panel, appointed by Energy Secretary Steven Chu, offered the Obama administration's first assessment of a drilling process that has prompted an economic boom -- and raised environmental issues -- in Pennsylvania.
The panel of experts said close environmental monitoring and public reporting of the details of the process, commonly known as "fracking," are key to making sure the nation's natural gas boom proceeds safely.
"As shale gas grows and becomes an increasingly important part of our nation's energy supply, it is crucial to bring a better understanding of the environmental impacts -- both current and potential -- and ensure that they are properly addressed," said John Deutch, a former CIA director and chairman of the panel advising Chu.
New Yorkers, however, seem more focused on the potential economic benefits of fracking. The Quinnipiac University poll released Thursday showed New Yorkers backing the gas-drilling practice, 47 percent to 42 percent. Upstaters supported the process by a far bigger majority -- 51 percent to 39 percent.
The Obama administration panel offered no hard-and-fast rules for regulating fracking. Those more likely will be proposed next year when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issues its report on the drilling practice.
But while also noting the environmental risks, the Energy Department panel stressed that much good has come out of a drilling practice that has transformed shale formations, once ignored by gas companies, into the source of nearly 30 percent of the natural gas the nation produces.
"This has brought lower prices, domestic jobs and the prospect of enhanced national security due to the potential of substantial production growth," the panel said in its report. "But the growth has also brought questions about whether both current and future production can be done in an environmentally sound fashion that meets the needs of public trust."
The panel recommends measures to ease the environmental burden of fracking, which involves pumping vast quantities of water, combined with sand and chemicals, into the shale formations to push out gas trapped a mile or so below the surface.
That process has produced many anecdotes about contaminated ground water -- including some that bursts into flames upon flowing from faucets -- in areas where fracking has been used.
To deal with such issues, the panel recommends:
* Consistent measurement of water stocks used in the fracking process as well as of air emissions of methane gas.
* Additional field studies of methane leakage from hydraulically fractured wells into ground water sources.
* Full disclosure of all chemicals used in fracking, as well as establishment of a national database of all public information on shale gas. That data now is scattered in more than 100 locations.
* Creation of a shale gas industry organization that develops best practices and promotes compliance with safety standards, as well as increased research and development to promote better environmental safety.
The federal report drew a mixed response.
Critics included two strange bedfellows: the leaders of the American Petroleum Institute and Food and Water Watch.
Jack Gerard, CEO of the oil industry group, criticized the federal panel for lacking expertise on shale gas and for suggesting yet more regulation and disclosure.
The panel "ignored consideration of the potential benefits and costs of new rules, an omission that could cause harm to consumers, jobs and the economy," Gerard said.
But Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food and Water Watch, noted that six of the panel's seven members had financial ties to the natural gas industry, which, she claimed, prompted them go easy on a dangerous drilling practice.
"Their recommendations will not go nearly far enough in protecting consumers and the environment from the risks associated with shale gas obtained through the process of hydraulic fracturing," she said.
But the report also won praise from people on both sides of the issue.
"They're finding exactly what we've been talking about for quite some time now, in that shale gas development, including Marcellus Shale development, can be done safely," said Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning, founder of the House Marcellus Shale Coalition.
And Katherine Nadeau, water and natural resources director at Environmental Advocates of New York, said, "The report confirms that environmental problems are real and that this is not just a [public relations] issue on the part of the industry."
Nadeau stressed that the report, in recommending full disclosure of the chemicals used in fracking, goes beyond what the state Department of Environmental Conservation recommended in its recent environmental impact statement on the drilling practice.
That DEC report could be the first step in the lifting of a drilling moratorium in New York's portion of the Marcellus Shale, which includes plentiful gas reserves in the eastern Southern Tier.
And while upstate and suburban residents support fracking, New York City residents oppose it, 50 percent to 38 percent, the Quinnipiac poll found. That was attributed to fears that the practice could contaminate the city's watershed, even though the DEC recommends no fracking in that region.
Statewide, though, the poll found a widespread consensus that fracking in the Marcellus Shale will be lucrative and risky. By a majority of 75 percent to 15 percent, those surveyed said they expected it would create jobs. But by a majority of 52 percent to 15 percent, they also said it would harm the environment.
"Drill for the jobs, New Yorkers say, even though they're worried about the environmental effects of hydrofracking," said Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.