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Know the West

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