Oil, gas industry opposes use of word ‘fracking’ for method

NEW YORK — A different kind of F-word is stirring a linguistic and political debate as controversial as what it defines.

The word is “fracking” — as in hydraulic fracturing, a technique long used by the oil and gas industry to free oil and gas from rock.

It’s not in the dictionary, the industry hates it, and President Barack Obama didn’t use it in his State of the Union speech — even as he praised federal subsidies for it.

The word sounds nasty to some, and environmental advocates have been able to use it to generate opposition — and revulsion — to what they say is a nasty process that threatens water supplies.

“It obviously calls to mind other less socially polite terms, and folks have been able to take advantage of that,” said Kate Sinding, a senior lawyer at the Natural Resources Defense Council who works on drilling issues.

Industry executives argue that the word is deliberately misspelled by environmental activists and that it has become a slur that should not be used by media outlets that strive for objectivity.

“It’s a co-opted word and a co-opted spelling used to make it look as offensive as people can try to make it look,” said Michael Kehs, vice president for Strategic Affairs at Chesapeake Energy, the nation’s second-largest natural gas producer.

To the surviving humans of the science fiction TV series “Battlestar Galactica,” it has nothing to do with oil and gas. It is used as a substitute for the very down-to-Earth curse word.

Michael Weiss, a professor of linguistics at Cornell University, said the word originated as simple industry jargon but has taken on a negative meaning over time — much like the word “silly” once meant “holy.”

But “frack” also happens to sound like “smack” and “whack,” with more violent connotations.

“When you hear the word ‘fracking,’ what lights up your brain is the profanity,” said Deborah Mitchell, who teaches marketing at the University of Wisconsin’s School of Business. “Negative things come to mind.”

Obama did not use the word in his State of the Union address Tuesday night, when he said his administration will help ensure natural gas will be developed safely, suggesting it would support 600,000 jobs by the end of the decade.

In hydraulic fracturing, millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals are pumped into wells to break up underground rock formations and create escape routes for the oil and gas. In recent years, the industry has learned to combine the practice with the ability to drill horizontally into beds of shale, layers of fine-grained rock that in some cases have trapped ancient organic matter that has cooked into oil and gas.

By doing so, drillers have unlocked natural gas deposits across the East, South and Midwest that are large enough to supply the U.S. for decades. Natural gas prices have dipped to decade-low levels, reducing customer bills and prompting manufacturers who depend on the fuel to expand operations in the U.S.

Environmentalists worry that the fluid could leak into water supplies from cracked casings in wells. They are also concerned that wastewater from the process could contaminate water supplies if not properly treated or disposed of. And they worry the method allows too much methane, the main component of natural gas and an extraordinarily potent greenhouse gas, to escape.

Some want to ban the practice altogether, while others want tighter regulations.

The Environmental Protection Agency is studying the issue and may propose federal regulations. The industry prefers that states regulate the process. Some states have banned it.

The drilling industry has generally spelled the word without a “K,” using terms like “frac job” or “frac fluid.”

Energy historian Daniel Yergin spells it “fraccing” in his book, “The Quest: Energy, Security and the Remaking of the Modern World.” The glossary maintained by the oil field services company Schlumberger includes only “frac” and “hydraulic fracturing.”

The spelling of “fracking” began appearing in the media and in oil and gas company materials long before the process became controversial. It first was used in an Associated Press story in 1981. That same year, an oil and gas company called Velvet Exploration, based in British Columbia, issued a news release that detailed its plans to complete “fracking” a well.

The word was used in trade journals throughout the 1980s. In 1990, Commerce Secretary Robert Mosbacher announced U.S. oil engineers would travel to the Soviet Union to share drilling technology, including fracking.

The word does not appear in The Associated Press Stylebook, a guide for news organizations. David Minthorn, deputy standards editor at the AP, says there are tentative plans to include an entry in the 2012 edition.

He said the current standard is to avoid using the word except in direct quotes, and to instead use “hydraulic fracturing.”

That won’t stop activists — sometimes called “fracktivists” — from repeating the word as often as possible.

“It was created by the industry, and the industry is going to have to live with it,” said the NRDC’s Sinding.

Dave McCurdy, CEO of the American Gas Association, agrees, much to his dismay: “It’s Madison Avenue hell.”

7 Comments

  1. Trail_Tramp

    I’ve also thought part of the appeal of the word “fracking” for fracktivist is that it sounds so much like “fragging”, a violent and negative word from the Viet Nam war. They also like to describe “fracking” as “BLASTING a mixture of water, sand, and toxic chemicals into the rock”. There is nothing explosive about a frac job.

    #1
  2. Karen

    I don’t get any of this. What is the big deal? Fracking is just an abbreviated word that until today never entered my mind that it connoted anything profane or anything close to the F word. I’m interested in what the actual frackers think of this, or do they even care. The only reason “fracking” or “hydraulic fracturing” could be seen as negative is because of the concerns over its possible negative environmental impact. So what? Whatever terminology fracking comes to be known by it’s still going to have negative connotations until more indepth research and results show that it’s completely environmentally friendly. So what’s next? Renaming other o&g terminology such as “drilling” and “bits” to other politically correct terms?

    #2
  3. Robert F.

    Boohoo. Crybabies. They should look at their debt ratio if they really want something to cry about.

    #3
  4. Trail_Tramp

    @Karen It is important because in our mass media world, some words or phrases can become “buzz words” and take on a life of their own. “Tar sand” has become another buzz word. It’s historically correct, chemically incorrect, but certainly used by certain groups to convey a sense of something dirty and nasty.

    #4
  5. SomeGuy

    If you’ve watched Battlestar Galactica (either the 1970s version or the new version popular among a younger demographic), “frack” sounds either negative, humorous, or both in the context of oil and gas.

    Leaving that aside, “fracking” is becoming a catch-all term for “oil and gas drilling we don’t want where we live/work/play”. Since it is not a word most people outside the industry ever heard until recently, it sounds new and (therefore) dangerous. People know that you must drill to get hydrocarbons. But they didn’t know until recently that you might have to break apart the rock to get it. Even the full word “fracture” sounds more destructive than “drilling”, as if the earth is being destroyed by the process. Whether “frac(k)ing” actually disturbs aquifers or otherwise impacts the surface environment is a scientific question.

    However, the issue here is not just science. It is also an emotional issue. Commenter Karen, for example, wants research to demonstrate that the process is “completely environmentally friendly”. This, of course, is impossible, as every industrial process, from oil drilling to making iPhones to building windmills, has environmental consequences. What is really going on is the intrusion of the industry into areas where it has not (at least recently) had a significant presence. Many people do not want to live near industry of any kind, as they are (with some justification) convinced that it will be harmful to themselves, their children, or the plants and animals that comprise the local ecosystem. “Fracking” is now the term that represents this encroachment, and it is probably too late for the hydrocarbon industry to change that association.

    #5
  6. I was just reading this article over on Yahoo but what I’ve really enjoyed is the comments here on FuelFix – @SomeGuy, very well spoken. Thanks for your insights and opinions.

    #6
  7. Chainsaw

    Thanks to Trail_Tramp for clarifying that there’s nothing explosive about hydraulic fracturing.

    I would ask the anti-oil and gas commenters what they would propose to use for energy instead of oil and gas, how much they plan to pay for it, and who will do the work necessary to make it available.

    The engineers and scientists of the energy industry generally do an amazing job of delivering energy in many forms wherever it’s needed at relatively low cost.

    #7