BOBBY MAGILL

Journalist • Photographer

Bobby Magill is a senior science writer for Climate Central in New York and a journalist who has covered fracking and the environment in Colorado and New Mexico since 2001. 

Fracking: Whatever you call it, the questions remain the same

Casper Star-Tribune reporter Jeremy Fugleberg said it just right in his column today about the oil and gas industry's attitude about "fracking," er, hydraulic fracturing.

"Fracking" to many in the industry is a dirty word, he writes.

But it’s also a dirty word to the industry and others, who cringe when opponents use the word as a battle hammer and bumper sticker slogan. Industry officials generally call it hydraulic fracturing, or abbreviate it in ways other than that horrible spelling: fracking.

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The subtext of those statements is this: Other than the enviro-crazies who hate everyone, those with genuine fear that fracking hurts their water or health are ignorant.

This belief bubbled to the surface at a forum about the practice hosted by the University of Wyoming in September. Several industry representatives, including some scientists, carefully explained the technology of fracking and how it’s regulated.

But those presentations, while well-made and well-meant, miss the point: People who fear fracking aren’t asking technical questions; they’re asking if oil and gas drilling near where they live may hurt their water and their health.

I attended that forum at UW, and the story I wrote about it for the Fort Collins Coloradoan precipitated a few emails from industry employees insisting that because I and the rest of media use the term "fracking" and not "frac'ing" or simply "hydraulic fracturing," it shows that reporters are not insiders and that reporters are ignorant and spreading misinformation. My critics have been very explicit about that.

Well, as a journalist, I'm quite satisfied with not being considered an insider. To be clear, "fracking" is the term of choice for the New York Times and nearly every other news outlet cover the matter.

In my experience, much of the industry's criticism leveled at reporters about our handling of fracking in news stories often gets bogged down in semantics. If our use of the term "fracking" over the oddly-punctuated "frac'ing" shows that we're not bending to industry jargon, that's a very good thing. As Fugelberg points out, readers aren't interested in wading through the weeds of the issue, they just want to know how energy development is affecting them.

This is where we run into another complication. I think there is legitimacy to the industry's criticism that its detractors and reporters sometimes tend to conflate fracking with energy development. I attended a Sierra Club lecture on fracking in Northern Colorado over the summer, and a speaker pointed to a photo of a dense field of oil wells in Weld County, and said, "look at all that fracking."

As Scientific American pointed out (subscription required) in October, what fracking is depends on who you're talking to. Some define fracking as the entire oil and gas drilling enterprise. Industry, regulators and others define it (correctly) as the act of hydraulically fracturing shale often thousands of feet underground using water, sand (a proppant), lubricants, surfactants and other often hazardous chemicals in order to stimulate the release of oil and natural gas within in reach of the bore of a horizontal well.

So, new oil and gas development, particularly in the Niobrara shale in Colorado and the Marcellus shale of Pennsylvania and New York, may seem synonymous with fracking. Advances in hydraulic fracturing and drilling technology allowing energy companies to drill wells horizontally through a layer of shale are the only reasons Niobrara and Marcellus drilling (and fracking) are occurring.

In other words, drilling is not fracking, but drilling probably wouldn't happen if it weren't for fracking.

Call it what you want, it's the oil and gas development and all its side effects (water, air and noise pollution, climate impacts, lost wildlife habitat, the industrialization of the landscape, and so on) that people have questions about.

As journalists, it's our job to provide answers to those questions, and the more the industry and government officials say drilling and fracking are generally harmless to public health, the more compelled we'll feel to look more deeply into the issue.