Fracking or Hydraulic Fracturing? What’s in a Name?

, former analyst, Center for Science & Democracy | July 12, 2013, 12:50 pm EDT
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A few weeks ago, I was telling my mother about the work I do here at UCS’s Center for Science and Democracy. “We’re putting together a forum next month about recent developments in natural gas and oil extraction and public access to information, “ I said, “It’s called Science, Democracy, and Community Decisions on Fracking.”

In her 70s and a longtime resident of Illinois where new fracking regulations have just been passed, my mother scowled in puzzlement: “Fracking? I don’t know what that is, but I don’t like the sound of it.”

Now, my mother is not an environmentalist. She still throws away recyclables, despite my best efforts at retraining. Nor is she politically engaged. Unless someone were to set up a drill rig in her backyard garden on top of her rose bushes, my mother isn’t much interested in where her electricity comes from. She was simply reacting to the word “fracking”—not the practice or the policy or the public controversy—because she hasn’t been following any of that.

Hydraulic etymology

fracking rigMy mother’s reaction, in fact, probably had very little to do with hydraulic fracturing. Had a sentence or two been given to it on the evening news in the midst of a story about proponents and opponents squaring off over the new Illinois regulations, I imagine she might have hit the mute button.

Hydraulic fracturing, technically, is just one step in the many stage process of getting oil and gas out of rock formations deep underground. Engineers and scientists use the term hydraulic fracturing—shortened to hydrofracking, fracturing, or just plain fracking—to mean this very specific activity. Hydraulic fracturing is the step in the process that involves injecting large amounts of water combined with “fracking fluids” and proppants (sand and other solids) down a wellbore. Fractures in the rock are created that allow the oil and gas to migrate up the well, where they can be captured.

Constructing a well pad, drilling the well, and preparing the well with steel casing and cement all must precede hydraulic fracturing itself. After fracturing occurs, the oil and gas must then be captured and transported and the wastewater properly disposed of. Other activities also surround the process, such as an influx into communities of workers and traffic. Combined with additional technological advancements like horizontal drilling, hydraulic fracturing, though not itself a new technology, has made accessible previously inaccessible oil and gas reserves.

Why so much confusion in the public dialogue?

Unlike technical experts, who use fracking to mean a very specific thing, nontechnical stakeholders have broadened its meaning to encompass the entire scope of operations involved in recent oil and gas development. The word, in popular usage, includes not only the specific step of fracturing the well but pre- and post-fracturing activities, as well as community impacts—real, potential, or merely perceived.

This difference in usage causes confusion in the public dialogue. For example, at a recent forum held by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, environmentalists and industry representatives sparred over whether fracking had caused water contamination. Opponents insist fracking could potentially cause drinking water contamination. Supporters claim there are no documented instances of water contamination—that fracking is safe.

But are these two sides talking about the same thing?

Fractured words

When pressed by Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) to come up with a specific instance of contamination, the Environmental Defense Fund’s Mark Brownstein conceded, ”the act of hydraulic fracturing itself which is going on many thousands of feet below the surface, OK, the chances of that causing water contamination is in fact remote.” However, he continued, “I think what you’re also hearing is that if wells are constructed improperly or if chemicals or waste water are mishandled at the surface, those can cause water contamination. Those are part of a hydraulic fracturing process.”

Whether the narrower, technical definition or the broader, popular one is more correct isn’t the point. Both are already part of the public dialogue. The point is to insist on clarity, as Sen. Landrieu did, so that we know which one we’re dealing with in any given conversation.

Blame Battlestar Galactica

If only the human mind loved clarity as much as profanity.

Thanks to all the “frack” in the original scifi TV series Battlestar Galactica, and even more “frakking” in its re-imagined early 2000s version, it is next to impossible (at least for some of us—and it CAN’T be just me!) to hear the word and not register the more infamous four-letter “f” word imparted by the show’s creators in efforts to skirt FCC rules governing profane language. Hence, we find things like Yoko Ono’s song “Don’t Frack My Mother,”  the grassroots campaign Don’t Frack with NY, and the documentary All Fracked Up.

The negative connotations of “frack” as a stand-in for the expletive tend to benefit supporters of fracking bans who tap into the public’s subconscious response to reinforce their message.

As if there weren’t enough confusion in the public dialogue already!

A rose by any other name …

In all seriousness, I do not actually know where my mother would come down on natural gas extraction and hydraulic fracturing if she had to make a decision about whether to lease her land or allow fracking operations in her neighborhood. She’s fond of her rose bushes, but she would appreciate the economic benefits, too. And maybe she could have both.

roseWhile  pro- and anti-fracking voices would work hard to court her opinion, I would want my mother to know what her local policy makers were talking about, first and foremost. I would want her to have the vocabulary to follow the public debate so she could hold her leaders accountable.

And I would want her to know what words to use so she could ask the right questions and get the information she needed to make the best decisions for herself and her community.


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  • Maynard Johnson

    It is not just the quibble about a narrower or broader sense of the word. There is also the mostly successful effort by the oil and gas fracking industry to get legislation to protect what they do from disclosure to the public, to regulatory agencies, and even to doctors and first responders.

    When queried about the secrecy legislation, the fracking companies mumble something about “trade secrets”. I am a retired intellectual property attorney; and I know of many ways to protect bona fide trade secrets other than exempting yourself from regulation. The choice they have made doesn’t pass the smell test.

    And there is the argument that there is no leakage from properly and responsibly run fracking operations. That presumes that all operators are responsible and doing everything properly. BP is a “responsible” company, but had the BP oil spill in the Gulf. Exxon is “responsible” and it owned the Exxon Valdez. Shell is “responsible” and it couldn’t operate its two Arctic offshore drilling platforms, and even ran one of them aground. What results when bad things happen with “responsible” or irresponsible fracking operations? They have been covered up by legislation in advance.

    • Hi Maynard,

      Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment. I hope you will be able to catch our forum on Science, Democracy, and Community Decisions on Fracking. Up at the beginning of the post, there’s a link to information, and it will be live webcast for any who can’t attend in person. We will have experts there speaking about the issues you raised, including chemical disclosure and trade secrets.

      When it comes to language, yes, it is a secondary issue in some ways, but it is well-known that companies spend lots of money on high-powered PR firms to influence the opinions of the public and policy makers. For them, it most definitely is not a mere quibble over words. Language is their bread and butter.

      It is my opinion that we should be as attuned to the language that’s used in the public dialogue as we are to the issues we are concerned with. Only then can we use language to our own advantage, to press the issues we think are important, and to make our demands heard through noise.

  • Pamela Hayes

    Who care what you call it? It is what it is. Fracking has been going on since 1949 with no controversy and that is only because Big Energy kept it’s activities on the “down-low”. Not enough is known about what ‘fracking’ does to our environment and to our health. But now, people are becoming hip to why it has been kept quiet. There are over 500,000 fracking sites in the US. Some people are making huge profits and they are not even US companies. Meanwhile, the “little” people suffer because all the laws are made to protect Big Energy, Big Oil, Big Ag, Big Pharma. It is very disheartening and makes people want to remain ignorant and disengaged. But, we can’t…that’s what all the Bigs want. So, WAKE UP!! And it doesn’t matter what you call it. Anyone who knows about fracking, knows what the process is.

    • Hi Pamela,

      Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment. You’re absolutely right that not enough is known about impacts on the environment and our health.

      The reason I think it’s important to be clear about the terminology is that pro-fracking interests have tried to make anti-fracking concerns appear ignorant for using the term more broadly. That’s a deflection strategy used to put off questions, and it’s wise to be aware of in public conversations.

      It’s true that people don’t care whether a hazard is caused by a specific step in the process of extraction or by related activites, such as improper wastewater disposal or transportation accidents, but pro-fracking interests will continue to make the case effectively to policy makers that “fracking is safe” as long as they can claim “fracking” only refers to a single step in the process that does not actually have any proven dangers (at least not yet).

      Getting effective regulations in place should not have to revolve around playing language games, but unfortuantely that is what happens sometimes. Action and persuasion go hand in hand, whether we like it or not. And I think we should use language carefully — in the interest of getting better information to the public and promoting actions that will protect our health and safety.