Fracking: The Confusing Vocabulary of Hydraulic Fracturing (Op-Ed)

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Deborah Bailin, analyst for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), researches political and societal barriers to formulating science-based policies. This article first appeared July 12 on the UCS blog "The Equation."Bailin contributed this article to LiveScience's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

A few weeks ago, I was telling my mother about the work I do 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.

My 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 a 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 that 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. After fracturing occurs, crews must then capture and transport the oil and gas and properly dispose of the wastewater. Other activities also surround the process, such as an influx of workers and traffic into communities. 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.

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?

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." [What Is Fracking?]

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.

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

Thanks to all the "frack" in the original sci-fi TV series Battlestar Galactica, and even more "frakking" in its re-imagined early 2000s Syfy 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 Federal Communicaions Commission 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!

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. [Unusual Dallas Earthquakes Likely Linked to Fracking, Expert Says]

While pro- and anti-fracking voices would work hard to court her opinion, I would want my mother to know what her local policymakers 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.

This article first appeared as Fracking or Hydraulic Fracturing? What’s in a Name? on the blog The Equation. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This article was originally published on LiveScience.com.

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