Clean Energy’s New Dirty Word

How did fracking become the energy industry’s new f-word?

Oil companies have practiced hydraulic fracturing for decades, but it was the press surrounding Oscar-nominated documentary Gasland back in February that first exposed many Americans to the now-controversial natural gas-drilling process.

Just a few months later — thanks to a surge of investigative news reports, academic research papers and what CNNMoney’s Steve Hargreaves calls “a series of public relations missteps” — the fracking issue is hard to avoid. And public opinion has taken a dramatic turn against the process; not long ago it was understood to be (relatively) clean and safe.

Talisman Terry, the friendly Fracosauris

Mobilized by reports of “fraccidents” and alleged negative impact to key drilling areas (ranging from noise pollution and nose bleeds to water contamination, dead animals and inexplicable illnesses), citizens against fracking are pushing for more information, tighter regulations, and outright bans. And lawmakers are listening: The procedure has already been banned — at least temporarily — in New York and Maryland, as well as more than 50 regions throughout the country.

“We have not done a very good job explaining where and how hydraulic fracturing fits into the shale gas development process,” acknowledged Jack Williams, president of Exxon Mobil’s shale gas unit XTO Energy, at an industry conference earlier this month. “We must do all we can to restore the public’s trust … our industry depends on it.”

Hydraulic fracturing works by injecting thousands of gallons of water, sand, and chemicals deep underground, cracking the shale rock and allowing natural gas to flow. A major concern among anti-fracking activists, though, has been the industry’s resistance to disclose the chemicals used.

Some companies do voluntarily list information on the FracFocus website, but their chemical combinations are generally vague — the natural-gas equivalent of the Colonel’s 11 herbs and spices. This “secret recipe” approach to disclosure has only fueled safety fears.

Last Friday, however, Texas became the first state to require shale-drillers to disclose the chemicals and amounts used. It’s a significant step, considering the money at stake — and the fact that the industry claims to be supportive.

Maybe not everyone in the industry agrees about its significance.

“I’m not sure we’ve seen the other side advance the ball down the field as far as you might think,” says Chris Tucker, who runs industry website Energy in Depth. Instead, Tucker says, this is fracking’s “teachable moment because now we have a captive audience.”

Call it what you will, there’s no question gas companies are actively responding to pressure. While past campaigns have focused mostly on the economic benefits of natural gas drilling, new outreach efforts are addressing environmental and public health concerns.

Exxon Mobil, for example, is aiming to dispel negative notions about shale gas drilling by hosting town hall meetings in areas where fracking is taking place.

Even better is one of Talisman Energy‘s efforts: a coloring book called Talisman Terry’s Energy Adventure, in which Terry the “friendly Fracosauris” explains the ins-and-outs of natural gas drilling to America’s littlest/most impressionable citizens. Distributed at community picnics in high-fracking zones, the coloring book alludes to the process, without actually naming it or mentioning its potential complications. (Similarly, a coloring book by Chesapeake Energyfeatures Chesapeake Charlie, a fun-loving beagle who leads kids on a “clean-burning, affordable, abundant and American fuel” journey.

Will these campaigns help shine a more favorable light on hydraulic fracturing? It’s hard to say, especially when the negative images are so dramatic — and abundant. Just last week, for example, Food & Water Watch launched its own ban-fracking petition. It looks to be a little bit light on signatures, but visitors do get the chance to see that “straight from the kitchen sink tap water explosion” image one more time.

Speaking of tap water, word is New York’s got the best — and fracking will ruin it.