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To FRACK or not to FRACK – That is the Question


On February 29 and March 1, 2012, I attended a Conference in Calgary on Oil Sands & Hydraulic Fracturing. The Conference was structured around the issues and challenges with Media & Community Relations.
Over 50 industry executives were in attendance. We heard from communication experts and over twenty speakers with practical, hands-on experience in the oil patch and in the fracking industry.
All of the speakers and many in the audience agreed that, in the field of public opinion, the fracking industry is currently “losing the war”. One speaker commented that the industry is up against a “wall of noise” and, if steps aren’t taken quickly, that wall will just get thicker.
The fracking industry and its potential for huge new reserves of gas and oil, has landed on the energy scene with a huge impact. Promising a new degree of energy self-sufficiency in North America, plus new jobs and economic stimulus, the rush to extract this resource from new deposits around the country is understandable.
However, as was made clear at this conference, the environmental movement, and pending legislation in various quarters, have the potential to derail the industry quickly. On the weekend the Globe and Mail reported that a panel, established by President Barack Obama in the US, recently concluded that there are “serious environmental impacts” from new high-tech oil and gas developments.
The industry has been slow to recognize the potential threats. In particular they have continually stated that the “chemical formulas” injected into the ground to release the gas are “proprietary” and cannot be released without causing commercial damage. At least two of the conference speakers rejected this position, stating that there were no substantial differences in these formulations and all of this information should be available. One speaker made a very interesting comment stating; “anything you don’t disclose, is a secret” and, in my experience, any secretive behaviour leads to mistrust and more opposition.
The second interesting thing I noted was a warning from one speaker that, while the chemicals are an issue, the real controversy facing the industry will be, much like the oil sands, the excessive use of water. The total volume required to frack these wells, and the concern about where the wastewater is being disposed of, is the next public relations challenge. The wastewater generated from these operations can contain high levels of radiation and arsenic, and much of the monitoring and reporting is being left to the companies themselves.
All in all we have another classic dilemma shaping up with huge impacts both environmentally and economically. US states are struggling with the need for new regulations versus the jobs and investment the industry is creating. Nowhere is that more apparent than in Canada where the industry is charging ahead in the western provinces, but Quebec has imposed a moratorium on any new drilling while it reviews the technical and environmental aspects of the fracking process.
My view is, like the oil sands, the fracking industry has neglected the public concerns and, like the oil industry, will have to work like hell to catch up. Based on the speakers at the conference, the good news is they completely understand the current situation and, more important I think, they have the tools to provide the necessary reassurance that the industry is indeed safe.
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