The Other Fracking Fracas

T.J. Turner in his Yellow Springs, Ohio, yard, a sign his answerto an energy-exploration company seeking lease rights for drilling onhis property.
T.J. Turner in his Yellow Springs, Ohio, yard, a sign his answerto an energy-exploration company seeking lease rights for drilling onhis property. (JAY LaPRETE / Associated Press)
Posted: September 04, 2011

The Marcellus Shale natural gas industry has gotten tripped up by the F-bomb.

Not that word.

"Fracking has become almost a dirty word," said Brian McDermott, spokesman for Gregory FCA Communications, an Ardmore public relations firm that has measured popular sentiments associated with various resource-extraction terms. It found fracking lacking, scoring even lower in positives than strip-mining.

Fracking, of course, is short for hydraulic fracturing, the controversial process for recovering natural gas. The word - harsh, threatening, and vaguely profane - has become a linguistic weapon in the shale-gas culture wars.

The fracas over fracturing will be on full display in Philadelphia this week as the Marcellus Shale Coalition holds a two-day conference to promote the industry. Anti-drilling activists plan a protest Wednesday outside the Convention Center, providing a stage for some censor-defying chants employing the new F-word.

The oil and gas industry is irked about what it calls mischaracterizations of fracking, not the least of which is how the word is spelled. In the trade press, it is frac.

But as the shale-gas boom took off, and the mainstream media took interest, the K got appended to frac to reduce the chance of mispronunciation. Otherwise, fracing might look as though it rhymes with racing.

The new spelling has an unfortunate resemblance to one of George Carlin's seven dirty words, providing anti-drilling activists with a bounty of double entendres.

"I take exception to the fact that drilling opponents have taken to using frack as euphemism for a curse word I can't print in this family newsletter," wrote Will Brackett, managing editor of the Powell Shale Digest, a trade weekly based in Fort Worth, Texas.

Brackett now inserts an apostrophe into the noun - frac'ing - to avoid the offensive "k." But his adaptation has failed to win widespread acceptance.

The gas-drilling frack should not be confused with the made-for-TV frak, a faux curse coined by the writers of the science-fiction series Battlestar Galactica long before hydraulic fracturing moved into the mainstream. The Battlestar producers wanted a four-letter word, so they deliberately spelled the word with only a K.

The ambiguity of frack has some unintended consequences, including creating new parental challenges. One Mount Airy mother whose young son encountered a neighbor's anti-drilling sign struggled about when was the right age to talk to her child about the fracks of life.

The industry was pretty much caught flat-footed by the controversy, and its message of clean-burning, job-creating, domestically produced natural gas has gotten blown off course.

Drillers have been fracturing wells for decades to release trapped oil and gas, and nobody much cared, even back in the days when operators pumped rock formations with napalm to stimulate the flow of fossil fuels. Those wells were really fracked.

In its modern incarnation, fracturing involves the high-pressure injection of water, sand, and chemicals into a shale seam, which causes the rock to shatter. The process is conducted after the well bore is drilled and lined with concrete and steel to prevent communication between the deep gas-bearing rock and shallow freshwater aquifers.

Josh Fox, the director of the documentary Gasland that attributes "fracking" as the source of all gas-drilling evils, including some unrelated to fracturing, says his broader use of the term is justified because there would be no shale-gas development without hydraulic fracturing.

Many activists, headline writers, and the public now use the word fracking to describe all aspects of gas production, not just fracturing.

The industry's insistence that there are no documented cases in which fracturing has caused groundwater contamination seems disingenuous to a public that is aware of cases in which gas-drilling caused pollution. Whether it was a bad frack job or bad cement work that allowed methane to leak into drinking water is irrelevant. In the public's mind, it's all fracking now.

Greg Matusky, the president of the Gregory FCA public relations firm, has a solution: Stop using the word.

Matusky's firm, using a Nielsen algorithm, has studied the use of the word fracking in traditional and online media against other terms used in natural-resource extraction. By the context in which words are used, Matusky can draw relative conclusions about positive and negative associations.

Natural gas drilling and horizontal drilling scored positively. Hydraulic fracturing scored much better than fracking. About the only terms worse than fracking were longwall mining, offshore drilling, and gulf drilling.

"A better, more positive term is warranted," Matusky wrote in a blog post in February. "The industry needs to identify negatively charged words and replace them with positive language."

The negative consequences of fracking have taken on near-mythic proportions. After the recent earthquake in Virginia, some activists blamed hydraulic fracturing, though no drilling was taking place near the epicenter.

"It also caused the Great Depression, the Black Plague, the October Revolution, and the breakup of the Beatles," responded Chris Tucker of Energy in Depth, an oil and gas industry group based in Washington.

According to Tucker's measure, if the Phillies don't make it to the World Series, fracking might be the culprit.

On the other hand, if the Phillies do win the series, it might present an opportunity for Chase Utley to confound the censors at the victory parade:

World. Fracking. Champions.

Contact staff writer Andrew Maykuth at 215-854-2947



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