War of the words

New oil and gas ‘codebook’ aims to help the public muddle through the fracking debate

 

Feature Frack
Image courtesy of Flickr user Poster Boy
If you want a taste of just how confusing it can be to navigate the debate over oil and gas development’s environmental effects, look no further than recent news coverage:

From the Washington Post’s Wonkblog: “Study: Bad fracking techniques let methane flow into drinking water.”

And from The New York Times: “Well Leaks, Not Fracking, Are Linked to Fouled Water.”

Reading those headlines, you might think: Well, jeez! Which scientists should I believe? Except that both stories describe the same study. Released this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, it surveyed 133 drinking water wells in Pennsylvania and Texas, and found that flaws or failures in some gas wells’ steel and cement casings – meant to seal in hydrocarbons and industrial fluids – are to blame for methane leaking into eight clusters of water wells in both states.

In other words, the study suggests that oil and gas development can, has and is contaminating drinking water in some places. But in these cases, hydraulic fracturing, or popularly, “fracking” – wherein a mix of water, sand and small amounts of chemicals is fired down the hole to break up rocks deep underground and release their hydrocarbon wealth – isn't itself the root of the problem.

What the study inadvertently shows is how much our choice of words matters in public policy debates. In some circles – government, industry, academia – fracking describes only a discrete part of the well drilling and production process. And among others – environmental groups, the media, and increasingly, average folks trying to sort out the mess – fracking has become a scary-sounding catchall term for the universe of processes and infrastructure associated with oil and gas development. The former allows industry to claim – correctly – that fracking doesn’t pollute drinking water, and the latter allows opponents to claim – correctly – that it has.

Hoping to help the public through that morass, researchers with the University of Colorado-Boulder's Center of the American West and Air Water Gas project have developed a basic primer of the language involved. Released last month, their glossary is a tongue-in-cheek breakdown of words like annulus, flowback, landman and, of course, fracking, complete with definitions, context and real world examples of how different groups apply them with different spins.

Lead author Adrianne Kroepsch, now working towards a PhD in environmental studies, got her start with oil and gas issues while researching development’s effects on groundwater in New Mexico’s booming San Juan Basin. That murky subsurface territory, she says, is a literal and figurative underworld. “You’re dealing with systems that are buried under the earth, that you can’t see with your own eyes. Lay people really have to rely on others to translate and interpret what goes on down there – so there’s a lot of room for conflict and debate” – and for people to talk past one another.

Meanwhile public hunger for information has grown astronomically since the start of the shale gas and oil booms: Use of the search term "fracking" has surged on Google since about 2011; Denver, southwest of the Niobrara shale play causing all of Colorado’s recent fuss over moratoria and new regulations, is the worldwide epicenter of frack searches.

But as The Union of Concerned Scientists has pointed out, the term “fracking” is likely to lead people to biased sources of information (confirmed: The top two results for my own search were oil and gas company funded “education” sites aimed at debunking possible risks and promoting economic benefits, while others were a mishmash of activist sites, a link to the Josh Fox documentary Gasland, and news articles on incremental developments), while a search for “hydraulic fracturing” is likelier to lead the inquisitive to more objective sources, such as government websites and peer reviewed papers (actually, I found it pretty much the same as fracking, save that the Environmental Protection Agency was among the search hits this time… perhaps things have changed since the organization’s 2013 report.)

“It’s already such a polarized information landscape out there—so you have to navigate it really carefully,” Kroepsch says of the process of pulling the glossary together with graduate student Will Rempel and professor Patricia Limerick, largely from government agencies and the latest peer reviewed science. The entries were gleaned from questions posed by the public during Air Water Gas’s public lecture series, FrackingSENSE, and mostly fall into three categories, Kroepsch says: Terms whose slippery meanings derail the conversation (fracking), labels for the players that suggest proponents and opponents belong to monolithic camps (industry, fractivists...as a reporter, I'm guilty of this one all the time), and patterns of behavior that keep things polarized (confirmation bias, wherein we selectively glean information that supports our preexisting beliefs).

Understanding those should help people at least begin to wade through the town meetings, commercials, ballot initiatives, and, of course, what they’re sure to encounter on Google no matter what search term they select, as policy debates intensify in Colorado and elsewhere.

There’s also an opportunity for the public to help dictate what’s in the glossary, which will be updated and re-released as a "codebook" by the end of October. Readers from all sides, Kroepsch says, should feel free to email term nominations and feedback to [email protected]. “We want it to be a two-way conversation. We really haven’t covered the entire terrain.”

Sarah Gilman is a High Country News contributing editor. She tweets @Sarah_Gilman


High Country News Classifieds
  • MEMBERSHIP MANAGER
    For more information visit www. wyofile.com/careers/
  • THRIVING LOCAL HEALTH FOOD STORE FOR SALE
    Turn-key business opportunity. Successful well established business with room to grow. Excellent highway visibility.
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    For more information, visit www.wyofile.com/careers/
  • SONORAN INSTITUTE, CEO
    Chief Executive Officer Tucson, Arizona ABOUT SONORAN INSTITUTE Since 1990, the Sonoran Institute has brought together diverse interests to successfully forge effective and enduring conservation...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING www.westernlaw.org/about-us/clinic-interns-careers The Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) is a high-impact, nonprofit public interest environmental law firm with a 27-year legacy using...
  • PROJECT MANAGER
    Position Summary Join our Team at the New Mexico Land Conservancy! We're seeking a Project Manager who will work to protect land and water across...
  • SEEKING PROPERTY FOR BISON HERD
    Seeking additional properties for a herd of 1,000 AUM minimum. Interested in partnering with landowners looking to engage in commercial and/or conservation bison ranching. Location...
  • DIRECTOR OF PRODUCT AND MARKETING
    High Country News seeks a Director of Product and Marketing to join our senior team during an exciting chapter of innovation and growth. This individual...
  • OUTREACH DIRECTOR
    Upper Missouri Waterkeeper seeks an Outreach Director to play a key role designing and leading activities and initiatives that engage citizens in water resource decisionmaking,...
  • WILDLIFE HAVEN
    Beautiful acreage with Teton Creek flowing through it. Springs and ponds, lots of trees, moose and deer. Property has barn. Easy access. approx. 33 acres.
  • ARIZONA CONSERVATION CORPS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Arizona Conservation Corps is seeking a Program Director in Flagstaff or Tucson
  • COPPER STAIN: ASARCO'S LEGACY IN EL PASO
    Tales from scores of ex-employees unearth the human costs of an economy that runs on copper.
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Colorado Plateau Natural & Human History Field Seminars. Lodge, river, hiking options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Specializing in native seeds and seed mixes for western states.
  • CHUCK BURR'S CULTUREQUAKE.COM BLOG
    Change will happen when we see a new way of living. Thinking to save the world.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • OJO CALIENTE COMMERCIAL VENTURE
    Outstanding location near the world famous Ojo Caliente Mineral Spring Resort. Classic adobe Mercantile complete w/living quarters, separate 6 unit B&B, metal building and spacious...