Here, as with Macondo and to a lesser degree the nuclear disaster in Japan, Chu figures the U.S. government's technological know-how and some imagination can be brought to bear. Before becoming Energy secretary, he was director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and as Chu noted, the lab had a significant geophysics component that built software to study oil reservoirs.
In May, Chu appointed an Energy Advisory Board subcommittee on natural gas, which is led by former CIA director John Deutch and a handful of experienced hands, including Daniel Yergin, chairman of IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates, and Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund.
One of the mandates was to move quickly. EPA is the other federal agency looking at the environmental impact of drilling for huge volumes of shale gas, but EPA doesn't plan to release its initial findings until 2012 at the earliest. Chu's panel plans to have recommendations on the table in the next few weeks.
The seven-member subcommittee is looking for ways to nudge and cajole gas producers into addressing nagging, and real, environmental issues that could put the kibosh on future supplies. For the past couple of months, Chu's top advisers have been meeting with experts and taking field trips to Pennsylvania's sprawling Marcellus Shale formation.
Issues growing beyond the grasp of state regulators
"DOE has an enormous research budget, but too much time in the past has been spent working with industry to increase profits," said Amy Mall, a gas expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "It has internal expertise to bring to bear on this issue, and we hope that will happen in an independent way."
Still, DOE's authority is limited. Land and water management tied to gas production on private and state lands is left to state and local regulators.
"This has to be important to the industry. No pun intended, but there is a spillover impact from Macondo," said Frank Verrastro, director of the energy and national security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, in testimony before Chu's subcommittee in June. "The industry said they could drill in those areas. People watched the flow from a well that was wild. Then 'Trust us, we can drill through an aquifer.'"
Verrastro said gas producers don't follow the same standards for completing wells and drilling. "It can be done," he said of the drilling and hydraulic fracturing process. "It has been done successfully and properly, but it needs to be spread throughout the industry. If this is going to receive the acclaim, and reach the resource potential, then we have to get serious about it."
After Chu's team and BP stopped the Macondo spill last summer, the debate about gas rose quickly to national prominence. Press reports and documentaries spotlighted gas leaks in small towns and New York protests. State officials came under fire for allowing companies to secure drilling rights on millions of acres before updating safe drinking water regulations.
Meanwhile, the multibillion-dollar domestic gas industry appeared intransigent, ridiculing critics and fighting tighter regulations. The notion that the federal government would regulate gas drilling at any level has been anathema to industry groups.
"The government and industry are both on the same side; they just haven't figured it out yet," Verrastro said in an interview. It's important they get it right, he added. "I don't think we'll get another opportunity for a very long time."
Where DOE's report will fit into the broader array of state and federal government-led investigations into the environmental pitfalls of the gas boom is hard to say, he said. "It's not clear to me where all the pieces fit, and the timelines, since everyone's looking at a slightly different variation in terms of approach."