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It is time to have an honest conversation with the environmentalists.
To date, mainstream media has managed to paint hydraulic fracturing as dangerous and environmentally irresponsible. Those same media avenues report that most of the general public shares the same sentiment. Investigative reports continually bring to light some correlation between injection wells and increased seismic activity. This steady drip of negative publicity feeds "fractivists" all the fuel they need to take their concerns to government representatives and shut down natural gas exploration in their districts.
The reason all this is occurring can be attributed to a lack of leadership in the industry and an epic failure in garnishing public trust. It is time the real stakeholders in the oil and gas industry share the truth and curb public perception.
Mark Boling, an executive vice president at Southwestern Energy Co., said, "We have been so focused as an industry on figuring out how to crack the code and get to these huge volumes of gas trapped in shale formations that we haven't focused on the things we have to do differently above ground." He is right. While the industry's focal point has been subterranean, media has had a heyday on the surface, scrutinizing the process before it has even been defined. It is time to confound misleading claims and take control of the conversation. It is time to get to the truth.
Taking control of the conversation
One of the greatest arguments against natural gas exploration is the "potential" of harmful substances polluting underground water tables. Of course industry experts understand the folly of this concern since the shale formations tapped during the hydraulic fracturing process are typically 1,525 m to 2,745 m (5,000 ft to 9,000 ft) below the water tables from which groundwater originates; deep injection wells extend even deeper. The root of the concern is the nondisclosure and secrecy in the chemical makeup of frac fluids. The public is uncomfortable with the idea that unknown substances are being injected into the ground.
The next concern is with what happens to the flowback and produced water when it comes out of the wells. Despite accelerated growth, natural gas exploration standards are still emerging. If left in the hands of the public, those standards will cripple natural gas production. It behooves industry leaders to set standards that ensure financial stability and environmental sustainability. What can be done with flowback and produced water? Municipalities are already placing restrictions on fracing wastewater. Deep-well injection is coming under increased scrutiny. The only other option is for operators to treat the wastewater themselves. Then it can be reused in the next fracturing operation. This reduces the impact on local water resources.
Not only should industry directly address public concern, but it needs to talk about the economic and environmental benefits of natural gas exploration. It should tune in on the buzzwords that garnish public support: "green," "sustainable," "recycled." It should talk about reduced emissions from natural gas energy. It should talk about creating millions of high-paying jobs.
This is not just a job for PR and marketing. The conversation needs to be steered to the topics that are actually based on facts. The industry should be talking about how safe, responsible gas exploration fits in to the grand scheme of cleaner, more prosperous living.