War of the words

This web exclusive appeared on hcn.org Sept. 18, 2014

If you want a taste of just how confusing it can be to navigate the debate over oil and gas development’s environmental effects, look no further than recent news coverage:

From the Washington Post’s Wonkblog: “Study: Bad fracking techniques let methane flow into drinking water.”

And from The New York Times: “Well Leaks, Not Fracking, Are Linked to Fouled Water.”

FEATURE FRACKReading those headlines, you might think: Well, jeez! Which scientists should I believe? Except that both stories describe the same study. Released this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, it surveyed 133 drinking water wells in Pennsylvania and Texas, and found that flaws or failures in some gas wells’ steel and cement casings – meant to seal in hydrocarbons and industrial fluids – are to blame for methane leaking into eight clusters of water wells in both states.

In other words, the study suggests that oil and gas development can, has and is contaminating drinking water in some places. But in these cases, hydraulic fracturing, or popularly, “fracking” – wherein a mix of water, sand and small amounts of chemicals is fired down the hole to break up rocks deep underground and release their hydrocarbon wealth – isn’t itself the root of the problem.

What the study inadvertently shows is how much our choice of words matters in public policy debates. In some circles – government, industry, academia – fracking describes only a discrete part of the well drilling and production process. And among others – environmental groups, the media, and increasingly, average folks trying to sort out the mess – fracking has become a scary-sounding catchall term for the universe of processes and infrastructure associated with oil and gas development. The former allows industry to claim – correctly – that fracking doesn’t pollute drinking water, and the latter allows opponents to claim – correctly – that it has. More…