Why industry doesn't like "fracking" and neither do I


(updated 1/30/2011)

I recently read that the energy industry hates fracking. Of course, they actually love fracking -- as in hydraulic fracturing to crack rock and release all those juicy hydrocarbons. What they hate is the word itself: “fracking.”

I hate it, too, though I suspect for very different reasons.

Energy flacks abhor “fracking,” according to the AP, because it sounds like a certain naughty word that refers to a sexual act. I’m not sure why that’s such a problem. After all, industry’s favorite slogan, “Drill, baby, drill,” isn’t exactly risque-free. And plain old “drilling?” Uh, yeah, try searching around for that on the Intertubes and you’ll see. Call me crazy, but sex sounds a lot more appealing than blasting chemicals into the earth.

The real reason industry hates “fracking,” and the activists like it, is even simpler: It’s short and catchy and has more of a bite than “drilling” or “energy development.” "It's Madison Avenue hell," Dave McMurdy, CEO of the American Gas Association, told the AP. There’s also something about the act itself -- shooting high pressured water and chemicals and sand into the earth to break the gas and oil free -- that triggers the gag reflex for those who aren’t making tons of cash off of it.

And so it is that a word that was relegated to the cable series Battlestar Galactica just a few years ago has become a regular part of our vocabulary, and “fracktivism” the latest cause celebré. And that’s given the whole debate over oil and gas development a strange linguistic twist. These days, you wouldn’t know we were in the midst of an energy boom. Rather, you’d think we were experiencing a fracking boom.

Take the North Fork Valley in western Colorado, home to organic farms, vineyards, the best fruit in the nation and the High Country News Mothership. Big swaths of land in and around the valley are slated to be leased out for energy development soon. People there aren’t taking it lying down, though, and they’ve launched an impressive battle against the leasing. As in many such cases, though, the focus seems to be on fracking -- just one element of oil and gas development -- rather than development itself. Their Facebook page is called North Fork Fracking; headlines about it refer to fracking; and a neighboring county group writes that the BLM is offering “fracking leases,” then goes on to say that, among other things, fracking causes air pollution (perhaps, but emissions from drilling and all the diesel engines on the gasfield do the same without fracking) and respiratory illness (ditto). 


The FracFocus map (since that's what everyone is focused on)  lets you find fracked wells in your state.

With everyone freakin’ over frackin’, don’t we risk missing the forest for the trees? By falsely attributing all kinds of ill effects to hydraulic fracturing, don’t activists damage their own cause in the same way as when they shout "climate change" whenever a warm winter day occurs? By portraying fracking as the ultimate evil of oil and gas development, don’t we risk making the other impacts look a bit benign?

Hydraulic fracturing has been used commercially since 1949, and by the turn of the Millennium, industry estimates pegged the number of wells fracked at around 1 million. Oddly, we in the media want to portray hydraulic fracturing as perpetually new. I can’t count how many stories I’ve read since 2009 that call fracking a “new drilling technique.” In 2006, the New York Times said hydraulic fracturing was invented in the late 1990s, even though the same paper called it new back in 1986 (it wasn’t). Indeed, the Times has run articles about hydraulic fracturing since the 1950s.

The Times’ 1986 article is the first account I’ve found of water problems being directly attributed to fracking. In rural New York state, it said, “... wells are contaminated with brine, petrochemicals or gaseous compounds such as methane - sometimes in concentrations so high that water ignites with a match. ... A new, high-pressure drilling technique, hydraulic fracturing has caused some of the problems by permitting methane to escape from deep formations and percolate into shallower aquifers.” High Country News mentioned hydraulic fracturing as early as 2003 in a story about concerns about coalbed methane development near Durango, Colo. Wells were going bad, and fracking was blamed.

But back then fracking was seen -- as it still should be -- as one in a long list of impacts resulting from oil and gas development. Hundreds of acres of piñon-juniper forests have been scraped bare for drill pads and associated roads. The stars that were once visible over empty mesas have been blotted out by the glaring lights and flares that pierce every gas field’s nights. Bad water and other non-fracking related waste fill up nasty dumps. Ozone levels in rural sage-covered plains are higher than in big cities. The drilling process itself is violent and can contaminate groundwater, and the lubes used to facilitate the drills’ earthly penetration are hardly benign. Conventional oil wells are flooded with water (sometimes chemically enhanced) and carbon dioxide to increase flow (CO2 flooding is known to cause tremors). And none of this is the result of fracking.

It’s not that I think we should stop worrying about hydraulic fracturing and its potential harms. To the contrary, we’ve got to demand that energy companies disclose the ingredients of frack soup, and we must continue to push the EPA to rigorously study fracking to determine what effect the fracking itself might have on the geology, and where and how the fracking fluids travel underground.

I just hope we won't let the PR value of the word “frack” blind us to a whole host of unrelated nastiness that oil and gas development can bring. But then, I could be getting it wrong. Maybe fracking is just what was needed to get people to open their eyes to all those other impacts.

The most extreme fracking in history occurred in 1967, 1969 and 1973, when nuclear devices were detonated under western Colorado and northern New Mexico to free up gas and oil trapped in tight rock formations. One of the early outspoken opponents to nuclear fracking was a young politician named Dick Lamm. He became governor in 1974, and later credited the outrageousness of the nuclear fracking with jumpstarting a then-fledgling environmental movement.

Maybe today's version of fracking is serving a similar purpose.

Jonathan Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News.

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