Although the practice of using hydraulic fracturing to produce oil and natural gas is decades old, over the next year, at least three major federal-level fracking studies are set to analyze various aspects of the practice. In addition to EPA’s congressionally mandated study (PDF), Inside EPA reports that the Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) natural resource and environment division has begun its own study on produced water from oil and natural gas production, and the Obama administration’s recent “Blueprint for a Secure Energy Future” (PDF) requires the Department of Energy (DOE) to take the lead in developing recommendations within six months for necessary immediate steps and best practices that can be taken to protect public health and the environment.

On top of these three studies, last weekseveral environmental groups petitioned (PDF) the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) to perform a programmatic environmental impact statement (PEIS) under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and develop concomitant regulations addressing the cumulative impacts of natural gas drilling in the Marcellus and deeper Utica shale formations. The petition relies on a novel and somewhat unusual interpretation of NEPA and it is unclear whether CEQ has the authority to grant it. In lieu of pointing to any one “major federal action” or federal program triggering NEPA review, the petition focuses on potential drilling impacts in the federally-protected Chesapeake Bay area and in addition argues that CEQ has authority to perform a PEIS because

“Many drilling sites and associated facilities such as pipelines will be located on federal land and will be considered a major federal action. However, many of the drilling sites, while not on federal land, are regulated by the states through federally delegated programs.

Regardless whether the CEQ study goes forward, the other major federal initiatives promise to keep the spotlight on fracking. In light of the Administration’s promotion of natural gas and continued focus on domestic energy production, it should be somewhat comforting for industry that the White House has carved out a role in these efforts. Particularly, given that the Administration’s charge to DOE in the Blueprint is arguably the broadest scope of any of the studies. Yet, with three, and potentially four, major federal initiatives underway, there is significant potential for conflicting results.

This is to say nothing of efforts in the private arena, which will undoubtedly affect the debate. For example, this week a Cornell study (PDF) will be released claiming that natural gas produced from shale formations is dirter than coal in terms of greenhouse gas emissions in the short-run, and merely comparable to coal in the long-run (see Energy In Depth’s counter to the Cornell study, including the study’s use of a Global Warming Potential factor for natural gas that is 45% higher than the factor used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Health Environments and Communities recently reported (PDF) that a Pennsylvania wastewater treatment plant that accepts drilling water violated numerous regulatory limits for a number of pollutants. The University of Pittsburgh study calls on EPA to review all existing permits for facilities that treat drilling water, and for additional studies to determine human health and environmental impacts

The atmosphere surrounding fracking and the need for studies has reached a fevered pitch—presenting both opportunities and significant uncertainty for industry. On one hand, the federal studies provide the opportunity for public input, and will likely rely on industry to supply necessary data and information. On the other hand, so many potential outcomes (both from public and private research) creates uncertainty regarding the existing regulatory structures, which in turn has the potential to disrupt domestic production. What is becoming clear, however, is that the drumbeat from the environmental community for increased regulation under all major federal environmental statutes, not just the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), is growing louder. This includes fundamentally altering how natural gas operations are regulated under the Clean Air Act (CAA), Clean Water Act (CWA), and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). Industry’s challenge will continue to be to ensure the public debate is based on accurate information and that the studies’ findings are grounded in the best available science.