Why the Energy Industry Doesn't Like the Term 'Fracking'

It looks like an innocent bit of jargon has acquired a nasty ring

tenner sep 6 p.jpg

Reuters


Many accepted words, from "Quaker" to "Big Bang" began as pejorative expressions. But apparently neutral jargon can become a semantic Frankenstein monster.

At least that seems to be the case with "fracking," an accepted abbreviation for the hydraulic fracturing used to recover natural gas. As the Philadelphia Inquirer explains:

 

The oil and gas industry is irked about what it calls mischaracterizations of fracking, not the least of which is how the word is spelled. In the trade press, it is frac.

But as the shale-gas boom took off, and the mainstream media took interest, the K got appended to frac to reduce the chance of mispronunciation. Otherwise, fracing might look as though it rhymes with racing.

The new spelling has an unfortunate resemblance to one of George Carlin's seven dirty words, providing anti-drilling activists with a bounty of double entendres.

It evidently isn't easy, even for a wealthy industry with a big legal and public relations budget, to predict what might happen to a name. (They might have double-checked in Wikipedia.) But once it does, fighting it also has unintended consequences -- like the Inquirer article. Once the semantic genie is out of the bottle, no new name can force it back in.  Euphemisms are usually counterproductive by calling attention to controversy.

Junk bonds have the worst name of any financial product, and they're highly unpopular now -- because of underlying risks, not the name. Likewise, hackers haven't given up that name even though it's been applied to thieves and terrorists. And on the negative side, I doubt the occasional Republican habit of referring to the "Democrat Party" has ever won a single election, and it does call attention to the Republicans' irritation at their opponents' official name..

The natural gas industry should take an existentialist approach, embrace the word, and move on. After all, "offshore drilling" scores even worse than "fracking" in opinion surveys, yet the Obama administration appears to be considering expanding it.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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