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Know the West

A fresh focus on frack attacks


A widely reprinted AP story recently broke the stunning news that the energy industry doesn't like "fracking." They like fracking itself -- injecting water, chemicals and sand into wells to break hydrocarbons free of tight rock formations. What they hate is the word: Fracking sounds just plain nasty.

"It's Madison Avenue hell," says Dave McMurdy, CEO of the American Gas Association.

Once relegated to use as an expletive in the cable series Battlestar Galactica, the word "frack" has recently become one of the most common terms tossed around by greens, and "fracktivism" their latest cause celebré. 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.

As much as I might like to see the industry flacks squirm, I, too, am worried about this fixation on fracking. When we focus on hydraulic fracturing as the most evil part of energy development, we risk overlooking other, equally malignant impacts of oil and gas production; we risk losing the forest for the tree.

Five years ago, the general public hadn't even heard of hydraulic fracturing. Activists were fighting against the drilling that was industrializing large swaths of the West. Fracking was just one item on a long list of concerns. On a national level, on-the-ground impacts were largely overlooked by Democratic politicians and environmental groups like the Sierra Club, as both were touting natural gas as the clean-burning fuel that would bridge the gap between coal and renewables.

Then, in the summer of 2008, drillers set their sights on the Marcellus Shale Formation in the East. With the boom now in their backyards, the New York Times, ProPublica and others started paying attention, and the national dialogue shifted significantly over the next year or two. The Sierra Club changed its tone, and even started turning down fat donations from Chesapeake Energy, a natural gas giant. And fracking -- once industry lingo -- became a favorite buzzword for greens and the media.

Given the sudden shift in the debate and rhetoric, you would think that fracking was new. Actually, it's been used commercially since 1949. By the turn of the millennium, industry estimates pegged the number of wells fracked at around 1 million. Nor is there reason to think that fracking has become significantly more harmful since 2008. As early as the 1980s, studies showed that there was a danger of hydraulic fracturing harming groundwater. Gas-patch residents have long suspected that fracking might be causing their faucets to flame.

But back then, fracking was seen as just one in a long list of impacts resulting from the messy and violent process of oil and gas development. Long before the Marcellus boom, hundreds of acres of piñon-juniper forests had been scraped bare for drill pads and their associated roads. Drill bits, lubed by chemically enhanced "drilling muds," pierced thousands of feet into the earth. The stars that were once visible over empty mesas had been blotted out by the glaring lights and flares that pierced every gas field's nights. Oil and gas wells produced hundreds of billions of gallons of salty, oily, toxic water that was pumped back into the earth, dumped into streams or poured into wastewater ponds that become deadly traps for unsuspecting birds.

Yet to read much of the media coverage of the current drilling booms, you might think that these non-fracking-related impacts had simply gone away, replaced by the harms of fracking alone. Recently, a story in the Christian Science Monitor said that a new study from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration showed that fracking released more methane from a Colorado gas field than previously thought. In fact, the study didn't mention fracking at all -- it referred to oil and gas production in general. In the rush to implicate fracking, accuracy has gone out the window, and the big picture obscured.

That's not to say hydraulic fracturing is benign. On the contrary, the practice must be closely scrutinized and its strange soup of ingredients disclosed. Impartial, methodical studies must determine how and where fracking fluid migrates underground.

As for the fracking-focused rhetoric? It may not be all bad.

The most extreme form of fracking in history occurred in the late 1960s and early '70s, when nuclear devices were detonated under western Colorado and northern New Mexico to free up gas and oil. One of the early outspoken opponents to nuclear fracking was a young politician named Dick Lamm. He became Colorado's governor in 1974, and later credited the outrageousness of the nuclear fracking with jumpstarting the state's then-fledgling environmental movement.

We can only hope that the present focus will similarly open our eyes, not blind them to the overall impacts of oil and gas development in both the West and the East.

Jonathan Thompson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is currently a Ted Scripps Fellow in Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder.