Guest Post: Language, argument and science in the fracking debate

There is evidence that both sides in the fracking debate fail to use science to support their arguments, according to new research among supporters and opponents of the technique. The study also concludes that the pro-fracking side relies on almost unlimited amounts of lobbying money, while the anti-frackers rely more on emotional appeal.

The findings are the outcomes of interviews carried out earlier this year by post-graduate student Ben Roberts-Pierel for his Master’s thesis Science, Discourse and Rhetoric: Unconventional Hydrocarbons, Fracking and Water Resources in the US and the UK. He interviewed people from both sides of the fracking debate in the US and UK.

Ben was particularly interested in the techniques used by both sides to appeal to their supporters. He also investigated how and where they were most successful. He concludes that both sides need to move away from rhetoric and towards scientific fact and reason.

In this guest post, Ben summarises the findings of his thesis, which was presented as part of his MSc in Water Security and International Development at the University of East Anglia, Norwich.

Science, Discourse and Rhetoric: Unconventional Hydrocarbons, Fracking and Water Resources in the US and the UK by Ben Roberts-Pierel

In the last decade development of unconventional hydrocarbons through the use of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has vastly expanded the recoverable petroleum and natural gas in the United States and is poised to have a similar effect in a number of other countries world wide. While this process has fundamentally changed the energy landscape in the United States, it comes with potentially serious drawbacks. Water and Unconventional Hydrocarbon Development (UHD) was the subject of the author’s Master’s thesis completed in September of 2014. The research investigated two questions: Firstly, whether there is in fact a scientific basis for water pollution claims and second, how that conclusion informs the discourses utilized by pro- and anti-UHD groups to achieve their respective aims. The research was carried out through interviews with key informants as well as consultation of primary and secondary data.

Water pollution can be caused by a variety of chemicals and naturally occurring substances, which can mix with ground or surface water through a variety of pathways. Spills and casing leaks are probably the most common pollution culprits. Examples are numerous but undoubtedly existent. 1

While scientists are presenting more and more evidence of water pollution, many supporters exonerate fracking of all blame. These pro-UHD groups are very intentional about the precision of their definitions, focusing solely on the discrete act of fracking. By doing this, they claim that water pollution not directly attributable to fracking is no different than in traditional oil and gas extraction. Anti-UHD groups on the other hand, focus their attention on fracking, making it a hated and distracting term, while in reality they need to consider the process more holistically, from well drilling to completion, not just stimulation. Although pro-groups argue this is not accurate, none of these wells would have been drilled if fracking had not made them economically or technically feasible in the first place. Therefore, the anti- groups must become more precise with their language to more effectively connect UHD and pollution.

Although there is this increasing attention to scientific work on UHD and water, much less has been done by social scientists, with some notable exceptions.2 Unsurprisingly, although UHD and the associated water pollution is quite complex, science does not play a major role in forming discourses and messages on the topic. Instead groups use other strategies to advance their arguments, in the process misconstruing, misusing or ignoring scientific findings. On the anti-UHD side, this manifests itself as an emotional appeal and a use of fear to dissuade public support. This is evident in the rhetoric of many anti-fracking organizations and the images they utilize of apocalyptic skylines, polluted water and irreversible environmental impacts.3

Conversely, the pro-UHD groups have the advantage of nearly limitless funds. This can be seen in the national advertising campaigns, and in the dollars spent on lobbyists. In 2013, all environmental organizations lobbying in the US were outspent by the oil and gas industry by a factor of almost 10 to 1.4 Granted, these numbers are not completely reflective as they include conventional oil and gas (although most of the largest players in UHD are also the biggest spenders on lobbying)5 and conflate all environmental causes into one, but it serves to illustrate the disparity.

This reliance on emotional appeal and money (coupled with advertising campaigns), serves to illustrate a great shortcoming of modern politics, particularly in the US but in the UK as well, which is the supremacy of this rhetoric (either pro- or anti-) over scientific fact, and in many cases even common sense, a problem that is certainly not just limited to UHD.

Another important result was that each argument enjoys greater success and acceptability at different levels and contexts. Most of the interviewees, as well as a consultation of primary data revealed that pro-UHD groups tend to be successful appealing to regional or national audiences in the United States. Polls done at institutions such as Qunnipiac University and the Pew Center6 suggest that national opinion of the practice is favorable. The interviewees also noted widespread advertisements in media at the state and national level supporting fracking and the use of natural gas.7

Conversely, protests, opposition groups and politicians have been more successful at the local level. In the UK the major anti- group “Frack-Off” lists more than a hundred local opposition groups and protesters were successful at stopping UHD in Southeastern England in the summer of 2013. In New York, the Supreme Court ruled that two small towns could ban fracking through zoning regulations.8

Differences between sites in the US and between the US and UK further led to the finding that the context is important. Interviewees in the UK suggested that acceptability is highest in northwestern England, where heavy industry and coal mining has long been prevalent. Likewise, a respondent working for a major field services company reported a generally supportive atmosphere in North Dakota, compared to Pennsylvania where workers were confronted by protesters on a daily basis. While the US public seems to be in favor of UHD, public opinion in the UK has been and is increasingly opposed,9 although it is supported by the conservative government,10 as in the US. While the US is the main entity guilty of pandering to special interests and lobbying groups, the lack of reliance on scientific evidence in policymaking is prevalent in the UK as well. Besides an analysis of the UK government rhetoric, this was reinforced by a UK geologist who noted his confusion with the UK government’s push for UHD, given the less than ideal geologic and economic conditions in the UK.

Although brief, this article serves to illustrate some important points in the debate surrounding hydraulic fracturing and water resources. Firstly, it notes the importance of being clear with definitions. It also presents some conclusions from the author’s research such as the lack of scientific backing for discourses on both sides as well as the role of emotional appeal and money in creating messages. Going forward, this research could be greatly expanded to include more interviewees representative of a wider spectrum of the public and to try to disaggregate further some of the differences in scale and scope. There also needs to be a concerted push to move away from the rhetoric on both sides of the debate and towards a reliance on scientific fact and reason, however unlikely that may be, otherwise little real progress can be expected.


1 Arenschield, L. (2014). Halliburton delayed releasing details on fracking chemicals after Monroe County spill. The Columbus Dispatch. Retrieved July 23, 2014, from

Fontenot, B. E., Hunt, L. R., Hildenbrand, Z. L., Carlton, D. D., Oka, H., Walton, J. L., … Schug, K. A. (2013). An evaluation of water quality in private drinking water wells near natural gas extraction sites in the Barnett Shale formation. Environmental Science & Technology, 47(17), 10032–40.

Jackson, R. B., Vengosh, A., Darrah, T. H., Warner, N. R., Down, A., Poreda, R. J., … Karr, J. D. (2013). Increased stray gas abundance in a subset of drinking water wells near Marcellus shale gas extraction. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 110(28), 11250–5.

Michaels, C., Simpson, J., & Wegner, W. (2010). Fractured Communities: Case Studies of the Environmental Impacts of Industrial Gas Drilling. Ossining. Retrieved from

Osborn, S. G., Vengosh, A., Warner, N. R., & Jackson, R. B. (2011). Methane contamination of drinking water accompanying gas-well drilling and hydraulic fracturing. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 108(20), 8172–6.

Vengosh, A., Hellmann, R., Pitsch, H., Warner, N., Jackson, R., & Darrah, T. (2013). The Effects of Shale Gas Exploration and Hydraulic Fracturing on the Quality of Water Resources in the United States. Procedia Earth and Planetary Science, 7, 863–866.

2 Cartwright, E. (2013). Eco-Risk and the Case of Fracking. In T. Strauss, S., Rupp,. Love (Ed.), Cultures of Energy: Power, Practices, Technologies (pp. 201–211). Walnut Creek: Left Coast Press.

De Rijke, K. (2013). Hydraulically fractured: Unconventional gas and anthropology (Respond to this article at Anthropology Today, 29(2), 13–17.

Finewood, M. H., & Stroup, L. J. (2012). Fracking and the Neoliberalization of the Hydro-Social Cycle in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale. Journal of Contemporary Water Research & Education, 147(1), 72–79.

Hudgins, A., & Poole, A. (2014). Framing Fracking: Private Property, Common Resources, and Regimes of Governance. Journal of Political Ecology, 21, 303–319. Retrieved from

Malin, S. (2013). There’s no real choice but to sign: neoliberalization and normalization of hydraulic fracturing on Pennsylvania farmland. Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences, 4(1), 17–27.

Mercer, A., de Rijke, K., & Dressler, W. (2014). Silences in the Boom: Coal Seam Gas, Neoliberalizing Discourse, and the Future of Regional Australia. Journal of Political Ecology, 21, 279–302. Retrieved from

Schirrmeister, M. (2014). Controversial futures—discourse analysis on utilizing the “fracking” technology in Germany. European Journal of Futures Research, 2(1), 38.

Willow, A. J., & Wylie, S. (2014). Politics, Ecology, and the New Anthropology of Energy: Exploring the Emerging Frontiers of Hydraulic Fracking. Journal of Political Ecology, 21, 222–236.

3 FrackFreeYork. (2014). FAQs. Retrieved August 06, 2014, from

4 Center for Responsive Politics. (2014a). Lobbying Spending Database Environment, 2013. Retrieved August 13, 2014, from

5 Center for Responsive Politics. (2014b). Lobbying Spending Database Oil & Gas, 2013. Retrieved  August 13, 2014, from

6 Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. (2012). As Gas Prices Pinch, Support for Oil and Gas Production Grows. Retrieved August 05, 2014, from

Quinnipiac University. (2014). Campaign Finance Gaining Support in New York, Quinnipiac University Poll Finds; Voters Split Like a Fracked Rock on Gas Drilling. Retrieved August 05, 2014, from

7 Personal correspondence

8 De Avila, J., Vilensky, M., & Gold, R. (2014). New York Communities Can Ban Fracking, Court Rules – WSJ. Retrieved August 05, 2014, from

9 O’Hara, S., & Humphrey, M. (2014). Support for fracking drops for third time in a row with Conservatives most in favour. Retrieved August 05, 2014, from

10 Ibid

12 replies »

  1. Is the lobbying from O&G really 10:1 compared to the environmentalist lobbying? Greenpeace and WWF spend millions of $ each year on issues which include fracking. If you concentrate on only the fracking companies, not the whole O&G business, and compare with the whole environmental lobbying then I wouldn’t be surprised if the ratio is more like 1:10. See I can twist facts to suit my agenda too.

  2. The first and last sentences show a fantastic bias towards ‘science’ being the only important issue here. This article is written as if logic, or deeply held spiritual beliefs – and/or whatever it is indigenous people’s use isn’t ‘scientific enough’. What about the human ability to assess multi layered risks, which is so profound its almost incomprehensible? Without a PhD in sight. Perhaps the author hasn’t noticed. Clearly Government haven’t, but 8.2.3 of the RS/RAE report hints at it – if you are desperate to root this in ‘science’.

    Not everything should, does or will ever, revolve around ‘science’ and ‘fact’. We should be grateful for that, and not discredit the more subtle understandings people have and the way they choose to communicate that. Discrediting subtle understandings held by people – in their hearts and necessarily way beyond ‘science’ – is probably the biggest problem facing the world today.

  3. ‘ this was reinforced by a UK geologist who noted his confusion with the UK government’s push for UHD, given the less than ideal geologic and economic conditions in the UK.’ This wouldn’t be the discredited ‘Professor’ David Smythe would it? I am afraid its always better to use proper current professionals as a reference on a technical subject.

    Also interesting that the slant seems to be on the science issues. Anti frack groups use false information. For example, pictures of massive flares, when any flaring in the UK is done with enclosed burners. Wells are supposed to leak, all of them yet the data presented by DECC, the regulatory body is that out of 8500 UK wells, none at all are leaking. Constant reference to BTEX chemicals, when these are not permitted in the UK. Use of the word ‘toxic’ when this is not applicable, failure to realise that all chemicals in the UK have to ‘non hazardous’ and are controlled by the Environment Agency. Reference to ‘no shale gas specific regulations’ when this is fundamentally not true. Loads and loads more false science being presented to the public by non scientists who are quite happy to pass comments on matters they clearly do not understand.

    I do like your blog tho Ruth! Lots of good links and info.

  4. As someone that worked on the “PRO” side, let me say that I regret every day of it. The companies that produce these unconventional wells are fully aware of the implications. Problems are overlooked in the interest of making more money. The wells I worked on polluted water, polluted pristine farmland, and ruined communities, making neighbors hate neighbors. The Oil and Gas community are smart, smart people, and know how to obfuscate, avoid collecting data, and create plausible deniability. Yes, there are safe methods for conducting hydraulic fracturing, but in my experience, few companies are willing to spend the money to do it correctly without strict regulation and oversight. Well casings have to be properly cemented and inspected at all steps, drillers must be transparent and truthful in their reporting, and the water used in the fracturing needs to be properly contained and treated. In my experience, most if not all the steps are shortened or sidestepped in the interest of saving production costs. Follow the lead of New York- please, ban tracking.

    • The wells aren’t unconventional. The geology is. The same techniques that are used for conventional oil & gas is used in unconventional O&G. Just to differing amounts.

      From your experience (and spelling) it sounds like you work in the US. The UK’s regulations are totally different and a lot stronger. Eg, no open lakes of produced water allowed here, only double bunded tanks.

      As for ruined communities and making neighbours hate each other, that’s more a result of the scaremongering by the anti fracking campaign groups. For instance in Balcombe, the community lived nicely together, but when the left wing funded (eg. support and staff from unions) groups arrived and caused chaos, they were the ones that caused division and hatred amongst the community. They were the ones that cause house prices to fall as who would want to live to noise dirty protesters. If it was just the wells and the drilling then you would’ve thought that Sandbanks on the south coast would be suffering the most. Instead they have the highest house prices in the UK.

      • Thanks for commenting. I’m interested in your suggestion that oppostion in Balcombe was funded by unions – can you let me know the evidence for this?

      • Memory makes me think it was Unison who sent a few staff, lent a marquee, and gave food. A quick google using the terms “balcombe union funding unison” found the following link –

        “Donations needed
        We need cash! To campaign effectively, we need your donations to pay for leaflet printing, web hosting, hall hire etc. We are fortunate to have had some grant funding from Lush Cosmetics, plus donations from Unison & Portsmouth Trades Council, but we need more.”

        Don’t forget that Ecotricity funded the Balcombe campaigners failed legal action.

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