Industry boosts pro-fracking PR


Like you, lately I've been getting a rapid education in fracking, the natural gas extraction method that's been much in the public eye, including extensive coverage of the April spill in Pennsylvania , the release of the anti-fracking documentary Gasland, and HCN's recent in-depth article "Hydrofracked?" in the June 27th issue. The environmental justice connection is pretty obvious; aquifers and other crucial water sources are becoming fouled with toxic chemicals such as benzene.

Environmentalists and ordinary citizens, such as Louis Meeks, the Wyoming farmer profiled in the HCN piece, suspect that this pollution is a direct result of the fracking process. Of course, studies vary. This puts them at an impasse with the oil industry and the Feds, who insist that fracking isn't, or isn't usually, to blame. Amidst the finger-pointing, evidence emerges of cover-ups and industry-friendly legislation, such as the loophole in the 2005 Energy Policy Act that prohibits any regulation of fracking by the EPA.

Complicating this David-and-Goliath scenario is the larger debate about U.S. energy policy; natural gas is somewhat cleaner-burning than petroleum and coal, and is abundant in North America, making it an appealing prospect for gaining energy independence. Plenty of infrastructure currently exists for its use, also, which is not the case for solar or wind power, and of course the industry already provides a lot of jobs and investment in rural areas. Put all these together, and you have the makings of a classic environmental battle as entrenched and frustrating as any before it.

Among all the old- and new-media coverage, which even includes a catchy rap YouTube video, has come the inevitable outpouring of industry P.R. Perhaps most prominent are TV ads currently being aired during evening national news programs, such as the NBC Nightly News. Have you seen them? Put out by America's Natural Gas Alliance (ANGA), one frequently aired ad relies predictably on a succession of images of experts in lab coats and hard-hats, unobtrusive wellheads dotting serene natural scenery, innocent children and families using stuff powered by electricity, the usual sorts of palliative appeals.

Wedged in between these feel-good shots, however, is a slick animated video of the drilling process. Center-screen, we see the cartoon drill bit descending rapidly into the brown earth, pushing much deeper than the shallow holes labeled "municipal well" and "private well" which are off on the distant left and right sides of the screen. The drill takes a hard right at "2500 - 16,000 feet" into "natural-gas bearing rock" which is sandwiched between - here's the kicker -- two layers of "impermeable rock barrier." Sounds great, doesn't it? Impermiable? Barrier? This is how fracking is supposed to work, surgically extracting the gas while making no incursion into the surrounding geology, and clearly it's what ANGA wants us to believe.

Unfortunately, it simply ignores the raging debate and the emerging evidence of flaws in the process, which has been saturating the airwaves for months now. This sort of denialism is typical of course, and will always work for a certain segment of the population that craves oversimplification and the glossy appearance of certainty. Nice try ANGA, but for the rest of us, it's too little, too late.

Essays in the A Just West blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Jackie Wheeler teaches writing and environmental rhetoric at Arizona State University.

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