WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. environmental regulator said on Thursday it has finalized a plan to study the effects on drinking water of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, used in natural gas drilling, and will release the initial findings by late 2012.
The Environmental Protection Agency is conducting the study, which was requested by Congress. The final report will be released in 2014.
"Natural gas plays a key role in our nation's clean energy future, and the Obama administration is committed to ensuring that we continue to leverage this vital resource responsibly," the EPA said.
The dates for releasing initial and final findings were not changed from the study's draft plan the EPA issued in February.
In fracking, companies blast a mix of sand, water and chemicals deep underground to break up rock that holds back supplies of natural gas and oil.
The technique has been around for decades, but recent advances have led to a drilling boom that has caused a backlash over concerns about possible water contamination and air pollution.
The EPA said the fracking study will look at the full cycle of water, from its acquisition by companies through the mixing of chemicals and fracturing, to the management of flowback and used water, as well as its treatment and disposal.
The Obama administration has touted the natural gas boom as something that can cut dependence on energy imports and emissions of greenhouse gases. But it has also stressed the importance of addressing environmental concerns over fracking.
Last week, the EPA said it would delay by 35 days final standards on emissions from oil and gas production including fracking wells. The rule aims to slash by 95 percent the volatile organic compounds, which contribute to smog, from natural gas fracking wells. It now plans to finalize the rule on April 3, 2012.
Reporting by Timothy Gardner; editing by Andrea Evans