Shouting past each other: Fracking debate generates lots of noise, not much else

Heated debates over energy and the environment are nothing new.

Twisting facts ever so slightly to support one’s argument or using over-the-top hyperbole are also common.

But is it going to lead us to a better-informed populace and policymakers or to better practices and policy?

Here are just two examples from the current war of words over hydraulic fracturing that are either not-quite-getting it right and outright going over the top.

One of many websites that have popped up to oppose hydraulic fracturing is Frack Action. The group states its goals pretty clearly: “Frack Action is a campaign working to stop the dangerous practice of hydraulic fracturing.”

The description of fracking on the main page of the site says it “involves injecting secret, highly-toxic chemicals deep underground to fracture rock formations. Fracking has been linked to over 1,000 incidents of groundwater contamination across the US, including many cases where people can actually ignite their tap water!”

The statement has elements of truth but fails to mention the chemicals used in frac jobs aren’t always the toxic ones, that the chemicals only make up 5 percent or less of the volume of materials that used, and that they’re not completely secret. They’re also not injected directly into drinking water, as many opponents seem to imply.

The part that say fracking “has been linked to over 1,000 incidents of groundwater contamination” might also be a bit strong.

Elsewhere on the site the language on this is slightly different: “There have been over a thousand instances of groundwater contamination in areas near fracking sites,” it says with a link that seems to be the source material: a 2009 ProPublica story summary, that phrases it more carefully: “But water contamination has also been reported in more than a thousand cases where that drilling is taking place …”

So it takes the statement of “reported” in cases where drilling is taking place and makes to a situation where fracking is “linked” to water contamination. Small change, but a significant one.

Now, over to the other end of the spectrum, outright hyperbole.

Earlier this week Elizabeth Jones, head of the Texas Railroad Commission (the state’s main drilling regulatory body), spoke before a hearing on hydraulic fracturing held by the U.S. House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.

The headline on the press release announcing her participation: “No water contamination ever due to homegrown technology — Hydraulic Fracturing.”

“It is morally wrong to deprive Americans the benefit of their God-given natural energy resources because a few special interest Grimm Brothers insist on perpetuating fairy tales,” Jones says in the release. “It is geologically impossible for fracturing fluid or natural gas or oil to migrate upward through thousands of feet of rock, sometimes miles, to affect the water table.”

Does Jones not count frac fluid that has been spilled above ground on more than a few occasions and reached streams, ponds and wells?

True, it’s unlikely frac fluid could find a path to migrate thousands of feet upward, but is it truly impossible for gas to migrate up through rock?

And doesn’t this all seem to be shouting over what plenty of people in the industry believe is behind some of the instances (just some mind you) of gas or chemicals reaching drinking water: poor cementing and well casing or older, poorly abandoned wells allowing for migration?

It’s hard not to think that these exaggerations and shifted meanings aren’t of much concern to parties on either side of the debate. This is a brawl between those who feel like there’s a clear-and-present danger to drinking water and those who feel like the economy is going to be trashed based on misinformation.

But twisting facts to suit particular needs — even slightly or unintentionally — just undermines their credibility. Heavy-handed rhetoric can do the same (and be a bit embarrassing on the public stage as a certain CEO found out this week when he called a proposed energy bill “un-American”).

In other words, accuracy still matters. Or at least it should.

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