What's the 'fracking' problem? May be its name

A Consol Energy Horizontal Gas Drilling Rig explores the Marcellus Shale outside the town of Waynesburg, Penn. A new survey suggests “fracking” terminology may need an image overhaul.

Louisiana State University researcher Michael Climek found that state residents were significantly more likely to think hydraulic fracturing is safe if they didn't hear the word “fracking” in the questions.

Kai Ryssdal: It used to be that if you wanted to drill for natural gas, you went out and did some surveying, found yourself a big underground resevoir, put up a drilling rig, and you were in business. That's what people in the energy industry call conventional drilling. Which kind of implies there's unconventional drilling too, right? There is. It's called hydraulic fracturing -- or fracking. And as it becomes more popular, it's pretty clear fracking's gonna need a makeover.

From Red River Radio, Kate Archer Kent reports.


Kate Archer Kent: Researchers at Louisiana State University found that the Bayou State is more likely to support drilling if certain words aren't used.

Michael Climek: Fracking has an undeniable similarity to a certain other four-letter word that starts with "F" that we won't specify.

Michael Climek developed the questions for the LSU study.

Climek: We thought, would residents be more supportive of fracking or be more likely to think fracking is safe if we described the process without actually using the word fracking?

Climek took the scientific approach. But I wanted to test his theory on the streets of Shreveport, La.

Gary Bachert: Whoever came up with it came up with a good word. But most people don't really understand what it means.

Heather Crask: I've never heard of that word. Ever! So I just learned something, so thank you.

Sara Hebert: It sounds a little dirty and nasty and impolite for mixed company. And it sounds really aggressive.

You just heard from Gary Bachert, Heather Crask and Sara Hebert. The LSU survey went out to 731 Louisiana residents. Researchers specifically used the word "fracking" with about half of the sample group. For the other half, Climek says, they described the drilling process like this:

Climek: A way to extract natural gas that involves using a high-pressure injection of water, sand and chemicals to remove natural gas from rocks deep in the earth's surface.

When study participants did not hear "fracking" in the question, they were far more likely to feel the process is safe and that the state should encourage drilling. So what does a marketing guru think about this image dilemma? David Placek created names for household products like Swiffer and Febreze as the CEO of Lexicon Branding. Placek thinks the term "fracking" is problematic for the natural gas industry.

David Placek: The root of it is fracture, and that's just not a very positive thing. Whether there's a fracture in a political party, or you fracture your arm, it's just nothing but negative connotations.

Placek calls to mind some "frak" history. It's found on another galaxy in the TV series "Battlestar Galactica." Turns out "Battlestar Galactica" characters use the word "frak" as an expletive. It's caught on with sci-fi fans. You can order "frak" T-shirts online, and download "frak" ringtones to your phone. Placek says this presents a PR challenge when it comes to the drilling process, especially in the media.

Placek: The press is just picking up on something that was used years ago. It's easy to say. It's quick. And I think in the right situations might even be used playfully, right? "What the frak is that?"

Michael Climek at LSU hopes to run this survey nationwide. David Placek says the natural gas industry should call the process by its given name, "hydraulic fracturing," and then come up with a new term once the drilling technology evolves.

In Shreveport, La., I'm Kate Archer Kent for Marketplace.

Louisiana State University researcher Michael Climek found that state residents were significantly more likely to think hydraulic fracturing is safe if they didn't hear the word “fracking” in the questions.

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