When you work in oil and gas, it’s easy to assume that everyone speaks your language – and that even people outside the industry know what you’re talking about when you mention “fracking” or “shale plays” or “unconventional resources.” But as we found out during a recent trip to a suburban Houston shopping center, this isn’t necessarily the case. Even as the debate over fracking and fracking-related regulations continues to receive extensive media coverage, it may be a mistake to assume that “fracking” is a household word.
From a general misconception of what fracking and shale plays are, to a complete lack of insight into this groundbreaking technology that has turned our country’s oil and gas industry on its collective wellhead, it seems that the general public may not be completely informed about the latest development in unconventional oil and gas exploration.
Two Simple Questions, a Variety of Answers
To find out just how much the “average American” understands about fracking, we decided to get out and ask a random assortment of shoppers two simple questions:
1. What is fracking?
2. What is a shale play/shale field?
As it turned out, the majority of people we asked weren’t quite sure.
Marjorie DuBois, an aesthetician, counts herself among those in the dark. We asked her, “Do you know what fracking is?”
“I have no idea,” she replied honestly.
“How about a shale play?” we asked. “Ever heard of that?”
Again, DuBois was stumped. “No idea,” she said.
College professor Blanche Johnson was equally stumped. When we asked her to define “fracking,” she was at a loss. “Without Googling, sadly, I have no idea,” she said. “Not even a clue.”
A man named Tyler laughed at his lack of fracking knowledge and lamented that his wife, a former controller for an oil and gas company, wasn’t with him. “She would know, but all I know is it has something to do with oil and gas,” he said.
Some respondents seemed slightly more informed but still unclear on the specifics of fracking and shale plays. Lori Martindale, who works in advertising, had heard of fracking and had a basic understanding of the technique: “It has something to do with pumping fluid into cracks into the ground to extract minerals,” Martindale said. “But beyond that I don’t know.”
Others – like Joseph Aldolino, a networker, and Lorna Smythe, who works in customer service – had heard of fracking and held somewhat negative impressions of the process.
“I know what that is,” Aldolino said. “It’s when we drill and you’re pouring all these dangerous chemicals farther down into the ground. I know they do it to try to get natural gas.”
Smythe agreed: “As I understand it, fracking is getting oil and gas from the rocks or the earth – and it’s dangerous to the environment.”
But not everyone who had heard of fracking was quite so quick to dismiss it as dangerous: Orthodontist Mike Hughes was familiar with fracking and quite supportive of the technology. “The most that I know is that (fracking) is breaking up rock to get at precious energy resources that we have as opposed to tapping into oil,” said Hughes. “I would vote yes to fracking, I’m all for it. I say we get all fracked up.”
Nikki Gonzales, a software accounting executive specializing in oil and gas, was in complete agreement with Hughes: “Of course I’m for it. I want my customers to prosper, and I want to create new jobs for our country.”
Gonzales turned out to be well-versed the subject of fracking and shale plays. She is currently reading “The Frackers” by Gregory Zuckerman – and she even gave us a quick history of the technique: “Fracking, which was started by George Mitchell, is a way to find more oil in unlikely places, namely through shale deposits,” she explained. “It’s revolutionary because they’re finding (natural gas) in places where they haven’t in the past. In my industry, it’s exciting for my customers because regulations aren’t ridiculous yet and it’s been a gold mine.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the people who had the strongest opinions about fracking were also the ones who had spent some time reading up on the subject. And while many respondents were all for a technique that allowed more access to energy sources, more than a few people we spoke with had concerns about the process. Robin Weber and Susan Kane were well-informed about what fracking is and expressed strong opinions about its safety.
“All I know is that fracking is a very destructive and dangerous way to retrieve oil,” said Weber. “It’s causing possible earthquakes and contaminating the water supply totally.” Weber also mentioned people suffering from nosebleeds and even the prevalence of cancer clusters in fracking area.
Kane was worried about the “highly toxic” chemicals used in the process. She had a basic understanding of how the fracking process worked, and, although she wasn’t completely sure what a “shale play” was, she offered a pretty good guess: “Maybe (a shale play) is the area where the oil and gas companies look to see if there is natural gas there, and a shale field is where the gas is being extracted. Those are my best guesses anyway without resorting to Google,” she said.
Still Forming Opinions
Homemaker Allison Pagni told us that she doesn’t know enough about fracking to have a strong opinion. “Isn’t it something to do with drilling for oil in areas where the oil is sort of mixed in or trapped in the soil and they drill down and pump in something, maybe water?” she asked. “I don’t really know enough to be opposed to it, though if it were being done near my home I think I would at least want to know and understand more. But it doesn’t scare me at the moment, and I am certainly OK with it taking place in areas not affecting homes and towns.”
Educator Tom Walden had heard both sides of the fracking debate and was even able to speak on the ins and outs of how fracking is done: “I think they drill deep down, then they go horizontally, then pump lots and lots of water and other chemicals into the well and also sand. Is that right? Somehow, the gas is forced upwards and then captured. My family has land in upstate New York that has gas (underneath) and there is a huge debate right now about fracking.”
Walden is spot-on: Voters in New York are split on how they feel about fracking, and the debate is affecting policy there. While some people there oppose the practice because of environmental concerns, others are eager to welcome the jobs that would likely come to the area if oil and gas companies were allowed to drill.
Anna Morris, who works in insurance, admitted she was only familiar with fracking because of her job. “I’ve only heard about it in the context of insurance claims and the risks for homeowners,” she said.
And a shale play or shale field? “I guess it has something to do with where they frack for the oil and gas,” Morris guessed. “Is that it? I know it has something to do with oil or gas because shale makes me think of Geology 101 from college.”
The Debate Isn’t Over
While our survey may not have been completely scientific, the results were pretty interesting. While we did find several people who were quite well-informed and had a definite stand on the fracking debate (with both sides represented in our poll), it seemed that most respondents were hesitant to form a strong opinion one way or the other.
If our random sample of shoppers tells us anything, it’s that the fracking debate is far from over. This is good news for the industry and for anyone who wants to see the US economy grow and prosper. This should be a call to the industry to better educate people about what fracking is and about the realities of the process – and to address people’s environmental concerns with fact-based knowledge and truthful answers.