In this Jan. 23, 2012 file photo, Gillie Waddington of Enfield, N.Y., raises a fist during rally against hydraulic fracturing of natural gas wells at the Legislative Office Building in Albany, N.Y. President Barack Obama the f- word during his recent State of the Union speech nor did he mention the technology used to get it, known commonly as fracking. That’s because the word has become a lightning rod. (AP Photo/Mike Groll, File)
Well, The Associated Press spent 888 words toying with whether the use of one word — ‘fracking’ was appropriate when the media covers the continuing controversies over natural gas drilling. The thrust of the story is that industry is upset with the phrase, and blamed environmental activists for the media’s continued use of it:
The word is “fracking” — as in hydraulic fracturing, a technique long used by the oil and gas industry to free oil and gas from rock.
It’s not in the dictionary, the industry hates it, and President Barack Obama didn’t use it in his State of the Union speech — even as he praised federal subsidies for it.
The word sounds nasty, and environmental advocates have been able to use it to generate opposition — and revulsion — to what they say is a nasty process that threatens water supplies.
“It obviously calls to mind other less socially polite terms, and folks have been able to take advantage of that,” said Kate Sinding, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council who works on drilling issues.
One of the chants at an anti-drilling rally in Albany earlier this month was “No fracking way!”
Industry executives argue that the word is deliberately misspelled by environmental activists and that it has become a slur that should not be used by media outlets that strive for objectivity.
“It’s a co-opted word and a co-opted spelling used to make it look as offensive as people can try to make it look,” said Michael Kehs, vice president for Strategic Affairs at Chesapeake Energy, the nation’s second-largest natural gas producer.
This is the kind of story that New York AP writers love — it will get a lot of play, ending up on front pages all around the country, just as it did here at the Gazette. But the story reminded me of a discussion a while back here on this blog in which our old buddy Bill Howley, author of The Power Line blog, about whether the right spelling is “fracking” or “fracing” and — more importantly — whether use of the phrase was leading to some fundamental misunderstandings about the potential dangers of the larger natural gas drilling and production process. Take a minute and go back to read the comments section of the previous post, Report ties ‘fracking’ to W.Va. well contamination and you’ll see what I’m talking about.
You see, environmental groups do love the word “fracking.” It makes for great signs and slogans and chants. From a public relations standpoint for them, it’s almost perfect. But the industry’s huge and growing PR machine, despite their protestations in this AP story, well, they like it to — because it’s allowed them to deflect the real issues about potential drinking water contamination into an almost absurd game of word play. Environmental groups have turned “fracking” into short-hand for the entire gas drilling and production process, and in some ways that’s given the industry a big advantage.
There are no documented cases of ground water contamination from hydraulic fracturing.
Friends, family and people effected by well water problems surround Craig Sautner as he speaks outside his home on Friday, Jan. 20, 2012 in Dimock, Pa. prior to a water delivery provided by The Enviromental Protection Agency. Under the authority of the Superfund law the EPA is delivering water to four homes and testing water at 61 homes in the Marcellus Shale gas drilling area in Susquehanna County. (AP Photo/Scranton Times & Tribune, Michael J. Mullen)
Now, maybe that’s true. Maybe it’s not. Regardless, the turn of phrase — making fracking and hydraulic fracturing the whole focus — has allowed questions about drinking water contamination to be unfairly dismissed by industry, its PR machine, lawmakers and even some regulators. And there is plenty of evidence that other parts of the process — particularly poorly done well casing jobs — has and can continue to lead to drinking water contamination. An expert panel appointed by the Obama administration explained it this way:
One of the commonly perceived risks from hydraulic fracturing is the possibility of leakage of fracturing fluid through fractures into drinking water. Regulators and geophysical experts agree that the likelihood of properly injected fracturing fluid reaching drinking water through fractures is remote where there is a large depth separation between drinking water sources and the producing zone. In the great majority of regions where shale gas is being produced, such separation exists and there are few, if any, documented examples of such migration. An improperly executed fracturing fluid injection can, of course, lead to surface spills and leakage into surrounding shallow drinking water formations. Similarly, a well with poorly cemented casing could potentially leak, regardless of whether the well has been hydraulically fractured.
Bill Howley probably explained it better in comments on this blog:
Casing failure is a real and continuing problem for the gas industry. Failed casings and cement jobs have been destroying water wells in West Virginia for over one hundred years, at well pressures far below those used in the 1987 Parsons incident. Sloppy and dangerous cementing caused the Macondo well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico.
There is extensive evidence, the Duke study being the latest, of contamination of water wells because of failed casing and cement work on Marcellus wells. This is a proven problem that needs to be dealt with now.
Searching for some holy grail that will prove direct migration of fracing fluids from gas formations to aquifers is a distraction from the real and immediate problem — sloppy and dangerous casing work. This problem has been with the gas industry from the beginning. The Marcellus drilling is different only because the fracing pressures are so much higher and because of the massive amounts of water injected into wells.
Getting caught up in whether “fracking” is the right word just takes time, energy, and newsprint away from focusing on the very real questions about the shale-gas drilling boom, including not only water pollution, but the long-term sustainability of this industry in terms of gas supply and global warming.