2012-02-02 / Local & State

No Industry Backing for Word “Fracking”

By JONATHAN FAHEY
AP ENERGY WRITER

NEW YORK (AP) – 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.

“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 attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council who works on drilling issues.

“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.

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

“When you hear the word ‘fracking,’ what lights up your brain is the profanity,” says 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 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 (fracking), 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 or 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.

Some states have banned it. A New York proposal to lift its ban drew about 40,000 public comments – an unprecedented total – inspired in part by slogans such as “Don’t Frack With New York.”

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 press release that detailed its plans to complete “fracking” a well.

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,” says the NRDC’s Sinding.

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