The PR tide seems to be turning against fracking, and predictably, the political rhetoric from the gas industry and its allies is turning nasty.
In upstate New York, for instance, Richard Downey, director of a local landowner's coalition that hopes to lease its land to drillers, recently published an opinion piece in the Oneonta Daily Star playing the class warfare card -- claiming pro-drillers are good, truck-driving local folk, while the antis are Volvo-driving, brie-eating NIMBY elitists against anything ruining the view from their estate.
Downey himself is a retired New York City teacher, and while his rhetoric seems less than measured, it's typical of the posture displayed in letters to the editor columns across the state, many of which read like pieces in right-wing blogs -- vitriolic, largely fact-free, and wrapped in the flag,
A recent editorial in The New York Post, for instance, did everything but claim anti-frackers are led by former Weatherman Bill Ayers, calling anti-frackers "Hard-core lefties and environmental groups" that include the Working Familes Party and MoveOn.org.
This characterization of the anti-frackers isn't even true; in New York's Marcellus Shale region, for instance, the anti-fracking forces include local families farming the same land since the Revolution. The same is becoming true in states as far apart as Pennsylvania, Arkansas, and Wyoming, where concerns about the effect of hydro-fracking upon ground water supplies are getting more pronounced everyday -- together with lawsuits over the same.
But the rhetoric is a good indication of how defensive the frackers have become, as a rising tide of media stories about the dangers of fracking to the environment appear alongside reports of serious environmental accidents, and local governments banning fracking within their precincts.
Pittsburgh, for instance, passed an anti-fracking ordinance last November. Since then, local townships across upstate New York have done the same -- recently joined by Ontario, Canada. And last May in Flower Mound, Texas, no-fracking candidates swept a recent municipal election.
In fact, the tide of public opinion is visibly turning against hydro-fracking -- and not just in the Marcellus Shale region that begins in northern Alabama and ends near Utica, New York. Generally speaking, early industry assertions that hydro-fracking is perfectly safe have collapsed under a flood of facts about the procedure, leaving deep suspicions about the industry's intentions and reliability.
Enter a Philadelphia PR firm, Gregory/FCA, which charted the turning tide in a recent article it published in its blog, displaying data that made it clear that public opinion is turning against fracking.
"Since the beginning of 2010, the positive sentiment in traditional media for Marcellus Shale has fallen dramatically, from a high of +3.1 to a low of -0.3 in January 2011," wrote Gregory Matusky, the company president, in the report.
Matusky follows up that polling data -- he says he analyzed millions of media reports to come up with the downward trend -- with what amounts to a memo on how to counter media reports like the one from Moundsville, West Virginia that the municipal water supply temporarily ran dry because local gas drillers withdrew so much water from it.
Matusky's main heads:
• Publish an ocean of information about the Marcellus Shale. Matusky, who says he has no energy company clients, claims that the Marcellus Shale gas play is generally a good thing, but that the anti-fracking forces "...aren't under the same time constraint as gainfully employed Americans [and] have...idle time to plant falsehoods, raise suspicions, and demonize the oil and gas industry."
• Never respond to the supposed negatives. Constantly focus the conversations on how domestic reserves of clean energy of natural gas that will reduce our nation's carbon footprint, says Matusky.
• Make it about people. "The people of Marcellus Shale are fierce, noble individuals who have been ignored for generations. The industry needs to...make their stories of economic renewal a mainstay of the storytelling." How? "The industry should underwrite a [reality] show," he says.
• Dominate the online discussion. "The industry needs to dominate online conversations as a way to positively impact consumers, regulators, influencers, and ironically, the traditional media...."
• Connect the dots for the public [about the benefits of natural gas].
• Language is important. Find a better term than fracking, says Matusky; "The very term "fracking" has a negative connotation.
Much of what Matusky recommends is already finding its way into the public realm -- Downey's op-ed piece being only one example.
Missing from Matusky's analysis? Whether allowing hydro-fracking in the Northeast is a good business deal. People fighting to keep gas drilling out of their backyards like to point out, for instance, that the West and Midwest are running out of fresh water, and will eventually lead people and industry back to where it is -- the Northeast.
These people then say that looked at this way, swapping the region's plentiful supplies of clean water for the money gas drilling will bring is, to all intents, trading its birthright for a mess of pottage.
Whether notching up the rhetoric will save the gas industry's bacon is uncertain at best. Pennsylvania and West Virginia may have already made their deal with the industry, but New York hasn't, and aside from signs that new regulations covering fracking may be delayed almost indefinitely, two recent bills were introduced in the state legislature that would keep the fracking wolf from the door for some time: Assembly Bill A06541 proposes a 5-year moratorium on hydro-fracking, and Senate Bill S4220 would ban it altogether.
Also muddying the water for the energy industry: The Environmental Protection Agency, under fire for having exempted fracking from the Clean Water Act in 2004, is conducting a wide-ranging analysis of all the environmental impacts of hydro-fracking and isn't expected to issue a report for several years. The newly installed Commissioner of New York's Department of Environmental Conservation, Joseph Martens, has made conflicting statements that, when parsed, suggest little may be approved in New York until the EPA issues its own regulations.
Delay, though, may not turn out to be the best outcome, since it gives the energy industry plenty of time to follow Matusky's advice and slap some new reality show on the airwaves. Maybe it'll be called Gas Driller Angels.
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