The move comes as jurisdictions around the world, including Quebec and New York state, have halted 'fracking' operations or have launched extensive reviews on the use of the technique to tap shale gas reserves and other fossil fuels.
Federal Environment Minister Peter Kent already has said the federal government is monitoring shale gas extraction and has the power to regulate its development, although it's mostly an area of provincial and territorial jurisdiction.
He has now asked the Council of Canadian Academies – a not-for-profit agency that provides science-based studies – for an independent, expert-panel assessment "of the state of scientific knowledge on potential environmental impacts from the development of Canada's shale gas resources."
According to his parliamentary secretary, Mr. Kent has also ordered department officials to develop an internal work plan to examine any potential environmental consequences of shale gas development.
Again for those unfamiliar with the practice, fracking involves the underground injection of water laced with chemicals or other liquids under high pressure — usually through horizontal wells — to break up tight rock formations thousands of metres beneath the surface.
It has been used for several years here in Northeast BC, where the technology has proved critical for opening the potentially lucrative Montney and Horn River shale plays.
NDP environment critic Megan Leslie claims to be concerned the government is simply using the reviews, to further delay any substantial regulations on shale gas development.
There is no large-scale production of shale gas in Canada, but the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers believes, it could play an important role in meeting a growing demand for natural gas for decades to come.
Earlier this month, CAPP published five broad guidelines it wants its members to follow during shale gas fracking, including safeguarding groundwater, as well as more public disclosure on how much water is being used and what fracturing fluid additives are included in the process.
A spokesman says the group welcomes the review and hopes the science-based examination will address any public concerns and further prove the safety of shale gas fracking.