Friday, December 2, 2011

Fight emerges over 'frack' usage

Frack. The word would be an attention grabber, even if it weren’t in the center of national debate over our country’s future. As many people have come to learn, Frack is the nickname for hydraulic fracturing. It’s a word invented by and commonly used within the petroleum industry, and it entered the vernacular of roughnecks on drilling platforms long before the process to which it refers – breaking apart underground rock formations with pressurized chemical solutions -- became a political hot button.

Since the debate over the merits of hydraulic fracturing hit the mainstream with Marcellus Shale development in 2008, the word frack has picked up sweeping popular connotations. For some industry proponents, it has become an unwelcome and politically incorrect epithet associate not with the dialect and culture of the drilling platform, but with the edgy red on black “Frack Off” and “No Fracking Way” signs opponents wave at anti-drilling protests. In writing for the Press & Sun-Bulletin, and for my book Under the Surface, I would occasionally hear from industry people who insisted that I stop using the word altogether and instead refer to the process by its formal name – hydraulic fracturing. (I found avoiding Frack while writing about the popular debate surrounding it was like trying to ignore an elephant in the parlor.  It just wasn’t feasible, given it’s common use in and outside of the drilling trade.)

So how did Frack – a word invented by the industry -- become a weapon by industry opponents? Somewhere along the line, it became easy for protesters to seize the word’s descriptive potency for their own purposes. Still, opposition to the term within the trade does not seem to be universal. Frack is used without inhibition by regulators and trade groups, although I’ve noticed that PR firms are growing more inclined to using the formal term, or even an abbreviation FVHF (High Volume Hydraulic Fracturing).

Although Frack is not considered a dirty word in most industry circles, it’s becoming so in some, and use of the term may well continue to evolve given the politically charged nature of events and the sloganeering associated with it.

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