More Than a War of Words: Gas Industry Plays Fracking Victim

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Evoking an emotional response in one’s audience is a rhetorical means of persuasion well documented since Aristotle. But like Aristotle writes in his Rhetoric, if the reliable character of the speaker isn’t enough to convince a crowd, an emotional appeal might be the next best route to getting what you want – a strategy that is evidently well suited to a powerful but untrustworthy voice, like that of the gas industry.

The oil and gas industry’s chief spokespeople have become rhetorical masters, the veritable trailblazers of the devolution of public relations into spin and misinformation campaigns. They probably have a thing or two to teach Aristotle about the art of persuasion and conjuring. Take climate science for example, where the industry has conjured up a ‘climate change debate’ out of thin air, or warming air for that matter. With a few flicks of the rhetorical wand a ‘debate’ over the anthropogenic warming of the climate began, despite an overwhelming consensus on the matter from the world’s leading scientists.  

But we’ve long passed the point where we take industry at its word. We have become too skeptical to trust the ‘character of the speaker’ and the industry knows this all too well. Hence the blatant emotional play at work in so much oil and gas industry public relations. 

Most recently the gas industry has chosen to play victim in a rather surprising aspect of the fracking controversy – its language.

It isn’t fair, they say, to refer to hydraulic fracturing as ‘fracking’ because that makes people think of a similar, ill-reputed four letter word. Fracing or frac’ing are the industry preferred abbreviations of hydraulic fracturing, and gas lobbyists would have us believe the term has been maliciously hijacked by the environmental movement to mischaracterize the process as something…unseemly. Of course no mention is made of how water contamination, industrialization or air pollution have in their own way contributed to fracking’s reputation.
 
The disputed ‘k’ in the frack controversy was allegedly added by the mainstream media to clarify the words pronunciation and was later commandeered by the environmental movement to evoke a plethora of play on f-words. For example, ‘Don’t frack with New York State.’
 
According to the Associated Press, a communications firm in Pennsylvania found fracking to be worse off in public opinion that strip mining. A public relations firm representative Gregory Matusky says the only less desirable terms are longwall mining, offshore drilling and Gulf drilling. For Matusky the only answer for the gas industry is to stop using the term, replacing it with more favorable alternatives like natural-gas drilling or horizontal drilling, both of which generate more positive associations.

The gas industry, it appears, is on the wrong side of the emotional struggle and needs to redraw the battle lines. As Matusky writes: “A better, more positive term is warranted. The industry needs to identify negatively charged words and replace them with positive language.”

Complain as the industry might, they have long had a strong hold on the language shaping public perception of fracked gas. “Natural gas,” perhaps the most insidious and misleading fossil fuel title after ‘ethical oil’ or ‘clean coal,’ is an industry favorite, playing into the fuel’s misrepresentation as a ‘clean’ ‘alternative,’ two other commonly misused descriptors. Shale gas and unconventional gas are also newly coined terms used to describe what is essentially gas recovered through fracking.
 
Trying to rework the language, however, might be a move in the wrong direction. According to Edward Tenner of The Atlantic, the industry best be careful in its next steps. “Euphimisms,” says Tenner, “are usually counterproductive by calling attention to controversy.” A rose by any other name… 
 
The industry’s pitch for sympathy is perhaps most offensive for its detraction from the true victims of fracking. Instead of playing semantic games perhaps the industry should focus on increased transparency or improved operating procedures. These, after all, would be more direct solutions to fracking’s dirty connotations. 
 
For the industry, however, the concerns generated by a decade of poor industry practices are just environmental hysteria misdirected at fracking. “It also caused the Great depression, the Black Plague, the October Revolution and the breakup of the Beatles,” says Chris Tucker, spokesman for Energy in Depth, the gas industry front group. 

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