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
  • COLORADO WILD PUBLIC LANDS VIDEO CONTEST
    Please submit your video of 30 seconds or less, taken on public lands, to [email protected] by May 15th for a chance to win in one...
  • WMAN NETWORK COORDINATOR
    WESTERN MINING ACTION NETWORK (WMAN) CONTRACT OPPORTUNITY CLOSING DATE: Feb. 19, 2021 WMAN is seeking a team member to coordinate the various network activities to...
  • FRIENDS OF THE INYO IS HIRING TRAIL AMBASSADORS FOR THE SUMMER OF 2021
    Friends of the Inyo's Trail Ambassadors (TAs) support the Inyo, Sierra, & Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forests and other partners by providing positive public service, outreach, interpretation,...
  • LAND & CABIN ON CO/ UT LINE
    18 ac w/small solar ready cabin. Off grid, no well. Great RV location. Surrounded by state wildlife area and nat'l parks.
  • MANAGER PERMACULTURE LANDSCAPE CONTRACTOR
    Permaculture / Landscape Company Manager / Site Lead Red Ant Works, Inc. - 20+ year landscape construction and horticultural care company seeks manager and site...
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in natural and human history of the Colorado Plateau with lodge, river trip and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    San Juan Citizens Alliance is looking for a passionate, dynamic, organized, and technology-savvy communications professional to help grow our membership and presence in the Four...
  • ENERGY AND CLIMATE PROGRAM ASSOCIATE
    San Juan Citizens Alliance seeks an Energy and Climate Program Associate to focus on public outreach, education and organizing to advance campaigns to mitigate climate...
  • REAL ESTATE SPECIALIST
    This position provides professional real estate services and is responsible for managing and completing real estate projects utilizing a project management database that is designed...
  • WILDFIRE MITIGATION SPECIALIST
    The Wildfire Mitigation Specialist is responsible for delivering wildfire risk mitigation information, recommendations and programmatic resources to wildland urban interface homeowners, community members and partners....
  • DEVELOPMENT POSITIONS
    Thorne Nature Experience is hiring for a Development Director and Senior Individual Giving Manager. Individuals will work collaboratively with Thorne's Executive Director to develop and...
  • SENIOR PROGRAM MANAGER, LANDSCAPE CONSERVATION & ENERGY
    The National Parks Conservation Association, a 100-year-old nonprofit advocacy organization and the nation's leading voice for national parks seeks a Senior Program Manager, Landscape Conservation...
  • BACKCOUNTRY AND FRONTCOUNTRY STEWARDSHIP CREW MEMBERS
    The San Juan Mountains Association (SJMA) is hiring a crew of ambassadors to work in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service to educate visitors on...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, NATURAL HISTORY INSTITUTE
    The Executive Director is the chief executive officer of the Natural History Institute (NHI). The Executive Director has broad authority to lead and manage the...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR AT FRIENDS OF CEDAR MESA
    - The Land, History, and People of the Bears Ears Region - The Bears Ears and Cedar Mesa region is one of the most beautiful,...
  • SENIOR DEVELOPMENT ASSOCIATE
    Greater Yellowstone Coalition seeks a Senior Development Associate to coordinate the organization's individual giving program. The position description is available at http://greateryellowstone.org/careers Please email a...
  • TRAIL CREW TECHNICAL ADVISORS
    SEEKING TALENTED TRAIL CREWLEADERS The Pacific Crest Trail Association, headquartered in Sacramento, California ,is dedicated to protecting, preserving and promoting the Pacific Crest National Scenic...
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Native plant seeds for the Western US. Trees, shrubs, grasses, wildflowers and regional mixes. Call or email for free price list. 719-942-3935. [email protected] or visit...
  • THE LAND DESK: A PUBLIC LANDS NEWSLETTER
    Western lands and communities--in context--delivered to your inbox 3x/week. From award-winning journalist and HCN contributor Jonathan P. Thompson. $6/month; $60/year.
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.