When talking about his department's role in steering U.S. energy policy, Energy Secretary Steven Chu likes to recall its role in last year's oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
"It's true that we had no jurisdictional or regulatory authority in the deepwater spill," Chu said in an interview with ClimateWire late last week. "We played a different role. We helped stop the leak."
Chu's behind-the-scenes war room is widely credited with bringing order to chaos in the aftermath of the BP PLC Macondo blowout in April 2010. His team pinned down the oil's flow rate, and it was the joint effort of government scientists and BP engineers that finally stanched the three-month-long seafloor oil gusher.
In an interview, Chu suggested his department will try to play a similar role in sorting out the entangled mess of misinformation and spin about the environmental impacts of gas drilling.
The top two U.S. gas producers, Chesapeake Energy and Exxon Mobil Corp., are expected to drill tens of thousands of wells through 2020, and plenty of other companies remain lined up behind them despite a prolonged slump in natural gas prices. The result is nothing short of industrialization in rural areas outside of some of the nation's largest cities.
"The charge from the president was very clear," Chu noted. "We need to develop this, but we need to develop it in an environmentally responsible way."
Tapping and burning trillions of cubic feet of newly booked gas reserves is becoming a de facto energy policy, one that is growing quickly in the absence of federal policies designed to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Meanwhile, the Obama administration enforcement of the Clean Air Act is pushing the oldest and dirtiest coal-fired power plants out of the nation's electricity fleet. That means that relatively cheap and cleaner gas will replace the coal burners.
Furthermore, using natural gas in cars could have energy security benefits if it means importing less oil from the Middle East and North Africa.
Moving into DOE's 'sweet spot'
"There are more than regional issues at stake; there are national issues," said Gordon Pickering, an analyst with Navigant Consulting. "DOE is playing a larger role."
But the prospect of "game changing" new gas discoveries in America's heartland, near population centers in Pennsylvania and New York, has entered the public consciousness through environmental lenses.
Dominating this corner of the U.S. energy debate is a fear that extracting gas buried some 7,000 feet underground by erecting rigs that can drill a mile in any direction and using high-pressure fluid injections to unleash gas -- popularly known as "fracking" -- is too invasive and fouls air and water. Today's wells traverse aquifers.
States and U.S. EPA have been searching for the right balance that allows companies to expand their drilling operations, ensuring a reliable source of energy, while at the same time government agencies craft a policy that heeds public concern about contaminating water aquifers, toxic waste pits and air pollution.
The nation's massive shale and tight gas reservoirs are spread across the Northeast; in the upper Midwest; under Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Arkansas; and north into the Rocky Mountain region.
From his 7th-floor office in DOE's Washington headquarters, Chu explained President Obama's decision to plant the federal government's flag in the roiling shale gas debate. In March, the president turned to the administration's resident fixer, Chu, to bring his experience in plugging the BP Macondo hole to the fights over onshore shale gas drilling.
"Just as there is in deepwater drilling, there's a wide range of practices," Chu said, referring to the gas industry. "We have expertise in a lot of the technologies. That has to be in our sweet spot."