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The exploitation of natural gas buried within shale rock formations has the potential to push the United States forward towards full energy independence in less than a decade. That’s according to some energy analysts in Washington who say the growth in the use of new technology to tap the resources is of strategic and economic importance.
But environmentalists are warning that the US may be moving too fast, without fully understanding the risks
As this industry video illustrates, the process of hydraulic fracturing or "fracking" involves drilling one deep vertical well and then branching off into multiple horizontal sections where fluid is pumped in at pressure, to crack the shale rock and release the gas and sometimes also oil.
Andrew Weissman, senior energy advisor with Haynes and Boone, said, "One of the most important breakthroughs in, really almost in our lifetimes, we have tapped into an energy resource that’s vast and that can be developed at very low costs
As the production of natural gas has rapidly increased, so too have concerns about environmental impacts.
This documentary "Gasland" looks at complaints by people living close to fracking sites about the contamination of drinking water from chemicals used in the process.
The National Resources Defense Council wants more independent research.
Amy Mall, senior policy analyst with Natural Resources Defense Council, said, "It’s a fossil fuel, a production of natural gas creates a lot of environmental impacts that can be quite harmful."
The group wants the whole process to be slowed down, with less permit approvals and for local and federal authorities to increase scrutiny and regulations. Advocates of further drilling say many of these risks are over-stated.
This debate comes at a time when Washington is now considering whether natural gas should only be distributed domestically, or whether it’s time to begin exporting it in the form of liquefied natural gas or LNG.
Weissman said, "This is the best opportunity we have to really spark in a very powerful way the growth in the economy --- even more importantly, it’s hard to even fathom the geo-political significance of the US being potentially in a position where it’s no longer being dependent on any imported oil."
Some in Washington worry that if it becomes a big export, then gas prices could rise too quickly. That balance will dominate the debate going forward.
Reporter: "But it’s clear that abundance of natural gas, and America’s newly found ability to exploit it has the potential to dramatically increase the nation’s global competitiveness."