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.

Jackie Wheeler
Jackie Wheeler
Aug 01, 2011 04:12 PM
Imagine my surprise when I received a voicemail this morning (Mon. 8/1)from a representative of ANGA! Not surprisingly, he disagrees with my portrayal of his organization's ad, and wants to discuss it with me. This gentleman certainly has his finger on the pulse of the blogosphere; my post "went live" this morning and he was already leaving his lengthy message for me before 8:00 am AZ time. I didn't call him back; he left the message on my work phone, which I prefer not to use for such purposes, and I'm disinclined to give him access to my personal number. However, my understanding of blogs is that if you have something to say about a post, you reply to it. So Mr. ANGA P.R. guy, if you're out there, feel free to use the comment box right here; I promise I'll read anything you have to say.
Daniel Whitten
Daniel Whitten
Aug 01, 2011 06:19 PM
It is the kind of mis-information put forward by Ms. Wheeler that precipitated America’s Natural Gas Alliance (ANGA) to begin speaking out on the safe and responsible development of America’s natural gas. The ads to which she refers, along with forums and debates about the development and greater utilization of this clean, domestic energy source are important to the fact-based, science-driven discussion our nation should be having on our energy future.

The natural gas community is keenly aware that with the opportunities presented by North America‘s vast supplies of this fuel comes the responsibility to be dedicated environmental stewards. We firmly believe that people do not have to choose between protecting their environment and developing clean, abundant natural gas that also happens to be critical to our economy and our energy security.

The simple truth is the development of all energy sources comes with some risk. The solution isn’t to ban energy production. It is to ensure that these risks are appropriately managed.

Ms. Wheeler refers to the process of hydraulic fracturing, which, along with horizontal drilling, has allowed us to reach supplies never before accessible with far fewer wells. Using mostly water and sand, supplemented with less than 1 percent chemical additives, this is a proven process that is routinely and safely used in communities across the country, and has been for years. Hydraulic fracturing is but one part of natural gas development, which also includes integrity tests conducted to ensure wells are properly cemented and secure, and other safety precautions. Water that returns to the surface is either recycled for use in future operations or disposed of according to stringent regulations.

Our ads aren’t “denialism,” but were created to make it clear that we take very seriously our responsibility to produce natural gas in a safe and responsible manner. The vast resources we have in America make it possible for us to advance our economic and environmental goals together. Dan Whitten, ANGA.
Jackie Wheeler
Jackie Wheeler
Aug 02, 2011 01:22 PM
I’m grateful to Mr. Whitten for responding, and pleased to hear that ANGA “takes seriously” its “responsibility to produce natural gas in a safe and responsible manner.” Bravo! I also see that in his reply, Mr. Whitten acknowledges that there are “risks” involved with hydraulic fracturing and other energy development methods – agreed. My beef with ANGA is that these risks, while in the public eye for some time now, are notably absent from one of their frequently-aired advertisements. One would hope that the ads, while understandably brief and targeted at laypersons, would uphold the same “fact based and science driven” standards ANGA demands from public discussion, instead of presenting images and graphics that suggest all is sweetness and light in natural gas production. As my post points out, the science is varied and still in progress, but there are some inconvenient “facts” to be dealt with, such as the spill of toxic fracking chemicals in Pennsylvania. If these are not facts but simply “mis-information,” then Mr. Whitten should take issue not with my modest opinion piece but with the numerous mainstream journalistic accounts of such events.
Jackie Wheeler
Nick Privett
Nick Privett
Jan 30, 2012 05:16 PM
Here's another factual website you may enjoy.