Amid the ongoing battle in New York and elsewhere over hydraulic fracturing, one thing has become clear: The pro-drilling side is losing the public relations fight.
Any fair-minded analysis of fracking would conclude that the process is having a positive effect on the U.S. economy. Thanks to fracturing, drillers are extracting vast quantities of natural gas and oil from shale deposits.
By unlocking those hydrocarbons, the drilling sector has created tens of thousands of jobs, increased tax revenue to the states where fracturing is permitted (New York continues to have a de facto ban on the process) and, most important, it has dramatically cut the price of natural gas, which supplies about 25% of U.S. energy.
The U.S. consumes about 24 trillion cubic feet of gas per year. From 2005 to 2008, the years just before the shale revolution began, U.S. natural-gas prices averaged about $7 per million Btu. On Friday afternoon, the spot price for natural gas was about $2.37. If we assume the current price is $4 below what prevailed in the years prior to the shale revolution, low-cost natural gas is now saving American consumers about $263 million per day.
That’s a staggering sum of money. Yet the activists who oppose fracking are, let’s face it, dominating the debate. And they are doing so despite the fact that fracturing has been used more than 1 million times in the U.S. over the past six decades.
If fracturing were as dangerous as opponents claim it is, it stands to reason that we’d have dozens, even hundreds, of examples of groundwater contamination all over the country. Instead, we have a handful of claims.
From a public relations standpoint, the opponents of fracturing are winning the debate because they have a simple and effective message that sows fear of an industry that Americans are predisposed to loathe. It could easily fit on a bumper sticker: “Big Oil wants to pollute your water.” The mere notion scares people.
How has the drilling industry responded? Their messages vary, but they inevitably revolve around something like, “Oh, no, we don’t.” Following that is a wonkish explanation of why the process is safe, how only minute quantities of chemicals are used and how the men and women in the drilling sector love all things green and leafy. But an old saw in politics and public relations warns that “if you are explaining, you are losing.”
Combine the difficulty of explaining a rather complex engineering process like fracturing with a dreadful public image, and the oil and gas sector’s problems become even more apparent. A 2006 Gallup poll found that just 15% of Americans had a positive view of the oil and gas industry, while 77% had a negative image. Of 25 business and industry sectors in the Gallup survey, the oil and gas industry ranked dead last. Even the federal government ranked ahead of the oil and gas industry in the collective opinion of the general public. Last August, Gallup repeated the poll. The results were almost identical, with the oil and gas sector again trailing the federal government in negative views.
To be clear, none of this is to argue that the oil and gas sector is blameless. Accidents like the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska and the deadly 2010 explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico, and the spill that followed, have created long-lasting impressions in the public’s mind. It scarcely matters in the court of public opinion that the domestic oil and gas sector drills about 40,000 wells every year without causing significant environmental damage. But if one, or two — or 10 — of those wells has a spill, a blowout or causes contamination of an aquifer, then the entire industry gets indicted.
Here’s the punch line: There’s no such thing as a free lunch in the energy business. Hydraulic fracturing is a water- and diesel fuel-intensive process. Can the drilling sector guarantee that it will never have an accident? Of course not. But it’s equally obvious that the debate over drilling in New York combines two substances about which there is infinite potential for demagoguery: water and energy.
How New York policymakers navigate the tsunami of rhetoric about hydraulic fracturing will determine whether the Empire State participates in the most important energy development of the past 80 years, or gets left behind.