The PR War over Fracking

Fracking, which is a shorthand term for hydraulic fracturing (not a polite replacement for a colorful expletive), is a process that utilizes large volumes of high-pressured water, sand, and chemicals to fracture shale rock deep underground in order to extract the natural gas locked beneath it. While natural gas itself is the cleanest of the fossil fuels, and is often presented as a “green” solution, the safety and environmental impact of the fracking process has inspired increasing controversy and conflict. A PR war now rages between the energy companies that want to expand their fracking activities and the people and organizations who oppose the practice.

Oil and energy companies have invested a substantial amount of resources into natural gas, touting its viability and abundance while also attempting to reassure skeptics (especially those living in areas atop large shale reserves) that they are taking every precaution to ensure that the gas is being harvested responsibly and safely. However, a lack of regulation and disclosure rules regarding the chemicals used in the process haven’t exactly endeared fracking to opponents; it seems like folks would prefer to know exactly what these energy companies will be pumping into their land (and may potentially end up in their immediate environment via air and groundwater). Gee, who would have thought?

Some specific and well-documented concerns include chemical contamination of potable groundwater, surface water pollution from the dumping of salty post-fracking wastewater into rivers, air pollution near fracking sites, and methane leakage. Yikes–we can see why the energy companies may have some trouble spinning this to their advantage.

Negative environmental impacts notwithstanding, fracking can have a positive economic effect on the communities in which it takes place–and that fact is the primary selling point behind the energy companies’ PR efforts.

Landowners are generally paid well for the rights to the natural gas beneath their property. Yet this fact is a double-edged PR sword, as individual cases tend to look less like a company investing in small-town communities and more like a giant conglomerate taking advantage of people in dire financial straits. For instance, farmers struggling with debt and the costs of keeping up their property may feel almost obligated to sell out to the energy companies despite concerns about potential contamination. Sound like something out of an ‘Erin Brockovich’/’A Civil Action’-esque movie? Hollywood sure seems to think so.

While townsfolk and farmers may occupy the front lines of the debate, they are not the only ones mobilizing against fracking. Grassroots coalitions, social media campaigns, scientists, legal experts, filmmakers and even some A-list celebrities are all joining what could arguably be called a large, loosely organized anti-fracking PR campaign. Films like Josh Fox’s documentary Gasland and the upcoming Matt Damon flick ‘Promised Land‘ have raised public awareness of the issue while drawing ire from energy companies and pro-fracking lobbyists.

How are the big energy companies fighting back? According to Steve Coll, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist whose book examining ExxonMobil came out this spring, they’re falling down on the PR job. In a revealing interview with Politico, Coll acknowledges that the fracking controversy just might be the energy industry’s biggest PR challenge in decades. The thing is, he’s not sure the industry acknowledges it.

“I don’t think ExxonMobil has faced an environmental or regulatory or political challenge as material to their business as they do now with fracking, certainly not since Valdez. I’m not sure they can handle this from the posture that they have struck toward other public affairs challenges, because this is going to be hard…And I’m not sure that they recognize that the politics of moving forward with this enormous investment they’ve made in XTO are going to be as hard as anything they have done, and not necessarily here in Washington. A lot of it’s going to be local…They’re going to have to get down into town halls and into communities and into regulatory settings and be more open and more of a partner than they habitually have demonstrated that they can do…And it’s not just them, it’s the whole industry. I think that they are in denial about how hard the politics of this is going to prove to be over time.”

Cory Stewart echoed this sentiment in his recent piece on the subject for PR Daily. “This PR war is not going to be entirely won inside the Beltway, via social media, or in the press. The only way oil and gas companies will be able to stem the growing tide against fracking is by rolling up their sleeves, digging in, and winning the PR battles in each community.”

In short, while this PR war is far from over, we’ll put our money on the farmer-friendly, Hollywood-backed, social media-promoted anti-fracking movement unless the energy industry steps up its game (not to mention its transparency and safety measures) in a big way and begins addressing the individuals and communities whose lives will be directly impacted by fracking.