Days after the launch of an industry attempt to seize the initiative in the pubic debate on hydraulic fracturing, a leader of the effort said it is driven in part by "a feeling of righteousness that we were being unfairly attacked" by critics wielding "bad science" and "hysteria."
James Hackett, CEO of Anadarko Petroleum, said in an interview that an eight-page set of industry recommendations released this week flowed out of government and industry study groups formed over the past two years. But he said the 11 companies involved also wished to set the record straight against "the hysteria that people were trying to create around hydraulic fracturing, which was scientifically misplaced."
"We felt that we needed to have the industry take on the responsibility of comforting society with regards to the impacts of our development," Hackett said.
Hydraulic fracturing, known for short as fracking, is the method used to drill for shale gas. Over the past four years, fracking has transformed the United States from requiring natural gas imports to self-sufficiency and a shake-up of the global gas energy balance. But it has also ignited a furious debate about air and water safety, with critics accusing companies of endangering groundwater and potentially causing earthquakes.
The industry has fought back with local public relations efforts and studies on the economic benefits of the shale gas boom. Yet it has also seemed knocked back on its heels by a flurry of investigative documentaries and reports, notably the 2010 film "Gasland" by Josh Fox, which invigorated critics and led to calls for public investigations and regulation.
'These are standards that we agree to live by'
The report issued Tuesday, from a group called the Appalachian Shale Recommended Practices Group, is the industry's first comprehensive attempt to seize the initiative with standards ranging from how to handle water to trucking and to the disclosure of the chemical content of fluids used in the drilling process (EnergyWire, May 2). The member companies include industry giants Exxon Mobil Corp., Royal Dutch Shell PLC and Chevron Corp.
The language of the report is extremely hedged, describing its recommendations as practices that drillers "should" follow. The top of the report calls the list "aspirational and recommended standards and practices." But Hackett said the wording is meant to meet antitrust requirements and avoid other potential legal complications.
He said all 11 companies had in fact pledged to adhere to the standards. "We cannot just publish these standards and then say, 'Hey, if you are in this business, you have to do this.' And that's why it takes the nature it does. These are standards that we agree to live by," he said.
Looming over the process was the voluble anti-fracking lobby, some elements of which have sought to stop the process entirely. Already fracking has been halted in the Canadian province of Quebec, in Bulgaria and in France.
The history of U.S. environmental movements was on Hackett's mind, and the need to take control of the public narrative. "We saw what happened in the nuclear industry when, in my opinion, lack of science took hold," he said. "We stopped building nuclear plants completely. They lost their license to operate for decades."
So Hackett and some of the others decided to answer their critics. In the interview, Hackett took aim at fracking critics and advocates of clean energy, whom he seemed to regard as one piece.
"If you have these very strident forces that seem to exist in America today to basically take us back to the Stone Age, someone needs to speak up," he said. "We provide the alternatives to society. And I think our industry in general has gotten to the point where we are saying, 'Enough is enough. This is not acceptable to have Americans basing decisions on something other than science, basing it purely on politics or somebody's vision of nirvana.'"
Hackett said, "There's an element that will take to the streets, will use any tool at its disposal, including bad science, to create a fiction that is not scalable, affordable, for the poor, for anyone, and doesn't get us off foreign oil. To think that somebody can actually say to an American that renewable energy is somehow fixing our dependence on foreign oil is unforgivable."
The recommendations are a beginning, Hackett said, an attempt to set an example for other companies and provide a template for state legislators. One area of criticism has been that the industry does not disclose all ingredients contained in fracking fluid, which might then pollute drinking water. But Hackett said many companies have responded responsibly by posting all but about a half-percentage point of the fluid contents on the website FracFocus.org.
"This is a hugely proactive effort with FracFocus. You are talking about a half-percent of the total fluid used. Even where you have benzene, you have less than you drink in a can of Coke, and yet it sounds bad. This is not toxic waste being poured into a riverbed," he said.
Hackett said, "We knew that the science on the hysteria was flawed. But oftentimes, it's not enough to recognize that the truth isn't being told; it's actually important to get the truth out there and to fight also."