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Thursday, August 16, 2012

Facebook: the answer to fracking’s PR problems. Seriously?

Is Facebook the answer to quelling public angst about fracking?

According to this disturbing, must-read, headshake-inducing article, some seemingly smart people seem to think so. And they could not be more wrong.

At an industry event this week, Reaganesque messaging (already ubiquitous from industry) and heavy use of social media were identified by advertising executives and communications pros as key tools in winning over the majority of Americans to the benefits of fracking.  And as usual, Pennsylvania was mentioned prominently as a source of "intense passions" that characterize the issue.

But can the gas industry really tweet its way to drilling nirvana?

There is far too much hyperbole on all sides of the series of monologues that define the current, sorry state of public conversation about fracking; indeed about energy policy generally. Proponents and opponents of fracking are equally to blame. There is obviously more than a little hubris at work in industry. But let’s hope the industry is – or quickly becomes - smarter that their consulted flaks are.

Saying the right things is not the same as doing them. Sincerity is subject to proof. And that proof of the gas industry’s net benefit to society – much of it yet unrealized, and yet to be fully measured against fully-understood costs - will come only in the doing – which includes a willing embrace of the rules that ensure it.  


  1. I wish you were right Mr. Quigley. I wish it was as easy as just "doing the right thing". But the fact is that most people do not see but a tiny sliver of what gas companies do, and that which they do (the trucks on the road, the noise, the lights, the flarestacks) are almost all negative. And those who wish to incite fear, though few, are quite loud. The media often gives equal credence to the lady with 50 cats that claims drilling gave her cancer and the guy with the petroleum engineering degree and 30 years of drilling experience.

    Whenever I'm taking reporters, politicians, students, etc. out and about for a tour of our operations, I drive them through West Kittanning. When we're done meandering through the densely populated area I ask "so how many gas wells did you notice?"

    The usual answer "I didn't notice any...why?"

    "Because we just drove past 9 of them."

    When gas drilling is done right, its an uneventful, mundane activity that has little impact. When wells are properly reclaimed, they are nearly unnoticeable. Folks don't see the thicker pit liners, the redundant water protections, the thicker casing in the wells, the higher grade cement.

    How do you propose the industry show that they are DOING the right things if they don't actually SHOW THEM?

  2. Thanks for reading and commenting, Mike. You are right that extreme views and exceptions and the negatives get reported. But there are far too man cases of doing less than the right thing. Until those number of cases are understood in context to the total, reduced, and minimized, the industry will shoot itself in the foot. Regarding reclaimed well sites, I agree. But very few horizontal Marcellus wells have been reclaimed in PA, or will be in the forseeable future. Roads and rights of way may shrink after drilling, but will remain, as will support infrastructure like compressor stations. When and how wells will be reclaimed is an extremely important issue. As are the standards -like those authored by by PA's Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) - to which the are reclaimed, statewide.

  3. As always thanks for taking the time to respond John. I'm wondering, what do you think are the top few things that the gas industry could do to show the public that it's doing the right thing? Especially to those people who view us with such a skeptical eye that anything we say is thought to be deceptive just because of who is doing the talking?

  4. I'd start with 3 things:

    1) The industry should, as I've written in previous posts, do what industry leaders are saying should be done - embrace rather than oppose tougher regulatory standards. 2)Do some self-policing and call the laggards to account and turn down the "we're perfect" rhetoric. 3)Embrace some developing efforts at standard setting - BMPs and perhaps independent certification processes for key aspects of drilling, etc..

    I understand that the "industry" is a collection of fiercely independent and competitive companies of widely varying size and capacity. But the industry-wide bar must be raised so that the many good actors aren't tarred with the same brush as the bad.

  5. 1. What stricter regulatory standards has the industry been rebuffing? Pennsylvania already has the strictest regulatory standards in the country, maybe the world, and most companies still go far above and beyond those regulations. There's heat on the Act 13 local zoning issue, is that what you're referring to?

    2. Who is saying that we're perfect? I certainly don't. I don't know of anyone that does. We work diligently to show that fracwater returning from depth is not an issue, but we readily admit that surface spills and methane migration do happen sometimes and that we're working to minimize those. All three of the ANGA commercials currently running state that there is risk involved with drilling, just like any energy source, check it out:

    3. MSC has been hard at work doing exactly that. Check out their 34 page report of recommended best practices for well site restoration. They are currently working on the same for other aspects of the process:

  6. Mike,

    Your assessment of Act 13 and mine differ. I think it is weak in many respects (see my post of March 31). The proof of who's closer to being right will be seen over time. If most companies go beyond the act, let them show it. I would love to see such a report, perhaps by an independent third party to avoid the usual claims of bias. The industry has also resisted EPA's new rules, and the recent US/state chamber PR campaign focuses on fighting additional regs. I could go on...

    I have no doubt that your company and many other are doing your level best. Not all companies are. Some of the world's biggest companies have experienced problems in PA and have had incidents - see my recent methane geyser post. Zero incidents may not be achievable, but a zero tolerance policy is.

    The ANGA commercial deserves credit for at least inserting a clause in the narrative that admits of risk.

    I have read the MSC recommended practices. They are solid. Now, who is using them? Is there a process in place to learn from experience and continually improve them? And where can we see examples of sites that have been reclaimed accorded to the RP?


  7. I'd love to see such an independent report as well as you, but the mere fact that the report was funded by the industry will immediately trigger the claims of bias we're trying to avoid. The government is no more reputable in their eyes either. The anti-gas activists even attacked the Carnegie Mellon report debunking the Cornell Univ. Howarth et al "gas is worse than coal" study, even though it was funded by the Sierra Club of all people.

    Companies TRY to show that they go above and beyond, and its dismissed as propaganda.

    I'm certainly not trying to marginalize the problems that have occurred. The methane migration incidents that have been seen in the Northern Tier are real, troublesome, and cannot and should not be easily dismissed. But they are localized, we understand WHY they've happened, and are the result of something having gone "not according to plan". It's important to recognize that, when done correctly, the risks are minimal and when something goes wrong the problems are able to be mitigated.

    We're not out there shooting blindly from the hip in an unregulated and unsupervised fashion, which is the picture many try to paint, and unfortunately many have come to believe. But we are human, and mistakes will continue to be made. To some, nothing short of perfection is acceptable, but as you well know that is unachievable with any sort of energy, whether it emits carbon or not. Its hard to get people to come back from that. I think there's only one thing that will prove to folks that we're not the big scary monster that they have in their minds... and that is a few more years of good operation.