Moving From Sound Bites Toward Substance

American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG)

Hydraulic fracturing has captured the public’s attention, to the point where millions of people who have never been to a rig site now confidently offer opinions.

At one level this attention focuses on persistent concerns about the technology. Will hydraulic fracturing contaminate my drinking water? Will it set off earthquakes? These are questions that can be answered with fact-based science and engineering information.

These public concerns, however, delivered a perfect platform for politicians and celebrities to engage in an entirely different sort of battle that wasn’t at all about hydraulic fracturing. This was an opportunity to hit the oil and gas industry ­– and in the process to gain name recognition and raise money.

So we have two very different things happening at the same time: One is a profound need to provide the public with accurate information. The second is to recognize that the political and public relations firestorm around this issue isn’t really about the issue – but that it can have significant consequences for public acceptance.

How are we doing?

How do we know when our actions – and the industry has been diligently responding to both issues – are having an impact?

I’d say the most fundamental measure is when we hear the public conversation change. When the popular media and culture shifts from sound bites into a real discussion it suggests that the public is ready for greater understanding.

The resulting discussion isn’t necessarily a sober, fact-driven analysis – there can still be a lot of yelling at this stage – but we see the conversation both deepening and broadening.

And we may be reaching this point on the issue of hydraulic fracturing.

Esquire magazine, not your typical source of science reporting, featured an extensive article on hydraulic fracturing in its January issue.

The article begins, “Crude oil looks like poison. Messy poison.”

Now, be honest: Would you keep reading? Or would you dismiss the article as just another hatchet job on the oil and gas industry and move on?

Well, the author uses these loaded words, phrases and imagery throughout the piece. They pervade his descriptions as he visits oilfield operations in Pennsylvania and New York, talking to industry spokespeople and rig hands. His visit with a prominent opponent of hydraulic fracturing claiming to have iron-clad proof of his own claims is similarly vivid.

He gets caught in the sound bite cross fire between supporters and opponents and observes, “This is how it goes. Facts are twisted, and belief replaces discourse.” That is depressing.

You get the feeling that the author doesn’t like what the industry is doing to develop these resources, and that he doesn’t want to. That it isn’t cool. In fact, he interviews one landowner in the Delaware Basin who claims he lost his job with a major music star because he was advocating for natural gas development on his land where hydraulic fracturing is currently restricted.

It may not be cool. But the author’s reporting gets the broad strokes (and many of the finer strokes) mostly right. Significantly, he presents both sides of the issue, searching for answers and sifting for facts and genuine understanding about hydraulic fracturing.

This article is no glowing endorsement of resource development. But the author understands that these resources are the foundation of our society and always have been. And that he is a user and beneficiary.

Pragmatic resignation is how I’d describe his final assessment. And hope that the industry will continue to improve its processes.

It’s no coincidence, I’m sure, that this article came out the same month as the film “Promised Land,” starring Matt Damon.

The film is about landmen working to secure acreage positions in a rural county in the eastern United States while dealing with an environmental advocate stirring up opposition. It received lukewarm reviews by the critics.

I went to see the film on opening weekend. There were about 20 of us in the theater to see run-of-the-mill Hollywood fare. It wasn’t horrible. But there was no cliché and sound bite left unused. And the plot twist, while bracingly cynical, was a letdown. The whole thing was simple minded, as if the screenplay was written in crayon.

“Promised Land” bombed at the box office. And as Vern Stefanic, managing editor of the AAPG EXPLORER, and I discussed why that might be, he observed that it’s taken several years to write, produce and distribute the film – and during the interim between the film’s first steps of production and its final completion and distribution the public has become a lot more sophisticated about hydraulic fracturing.

I think he’s right. Let’s help them understand even better.

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Director's Corner

Director's Corner - David Curtiss

David Curtiss is an AAPG Member and was named AAPG Executive Director in August 2011. He was previously Director of the AAPG GEO-DC Office in Washington D.C.

The Director's Corner covers Association news and industry events from the worldview perspective of the AAPG Executive Director.

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