Environment

The oil and gas industry is waging a PR campaign to counter public concerns about hydraulic fracturing. It extends to recruitment in school classrooms. By James Norman.

The fracking industry's PR blitz

On a sweltering day in coastal Western Australia last month, year 10 students at Broome Senior High School had an unexpected interruption. Buru Energy’s chief scientist, Dr Damian Ogburn, was standing at the front of the classroom to deliver a “career advice” session about jobs in the mining industry.

According to outraged parents, what followed was a “one-sided and highly polished” lecture about fracking followed by a “condescending” Q&A session. Mark Jones, a Broome local and parent of two, said he and many other parents found it “disturbing” and “abhorrent” that Buru would be permitted to address his 14-year-old son without his knowledge.

“I see it on par with allowing any other controversial industry, like tobacco or prostitution, into schools to espouse the virtues of their industry in the classroom,” he said. “I have really grave concerns about the oil and gas industry being given free access to our kids.”

But Jon Ford, Buru’s general manager of community affairs, says the company was invited to the school. “I’m sorry if some parents are upset about it,” he said, “but these talks are given from an educational perspective – there is no sell.”

The school visits are one small part of a much larger PR offensive being waged by the Australian fracking industry, eager to win public approval for the still controversial practice of gas extraction. Ford says the company also offers sponsorship for star performers in schools and runs colouring competitions for kids’ drawings to be put in the company’s corporate calendar.

Planned developments

Fracking – more properly, hydraulic fracturing – is a process whereby multiple deep wells are drilled in order to inject fluids at high pressure, which fractures gas-bearing rocks to release gas or oil locked within. The gas may be found in shale, sandstone and limestone (“tight gas”) or coal seams. Debate surrounds the contaminating effects of the potentially toxic fluids leaking into neighbouring groundwater.

Major fracking development is currently being pursued in every state in Australia. In WA, the North Perth Basin, Cooper Basin and the Canning Basin have all been identified as among the world’s top gas fields. In the Northern Territory there are large shale and tight gas deposits in Arnhem Land and the Central Desert. But the most highly contested developments are those occurring in more populated areas.

There are coal seam gas fields in Queensland, northern New South Wales, the hinterland behind Newcastle, and in Sydney itself, as well as further south in Victoria and Tasmania. In many of these places, community-based resistance has slowed the industry’s progress – with more than 160 community groups around the country opposing fracking as part of the Lock the Gate Alliance.

It is fair to say that the fracking industry is well aware of public concern around the practice. Victoria has a moratorium in place at present, and France has banned fracking altogether.

Industry campaign

During the latest federal election, the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association (APPEA) launched a large-scale advertising and public information campaign to “increase public awareness and support for natural gas exploration and production activities across Australia”. It was called Our Natural Advantage.

The campaign seeks to present the industry in the friendliest possible light, avoiding terminology that has come to have negative connotations, such as “fracking” and even “coal seam gas”, and simply calling it “natural gas”. Industry and government prefer the spelling “fraccing”, perhaps to defuse the way opponents have found it usefully similar to the word “fucking”. A national advertising blitz in newspapers and on television and cinema screens warned Australians not to jeopardise 150,000 jobs, “billions in tax revenue” and the bridge to a “cleaner energy” future.

But according to Matt Grudnoff from the Australia Institute, who has completed a report entitled “Fracking the Future”, many of these claims do not stand up to scrutiny.

Australian Bureau of Statistics figures from August 2013 show that the entire oil and gas industry employed just 20,700 people.

“Just look at the employment claims,” says Grudnoff. “It includes any associated jobs, like, ‘we pay our employees and they go to the supermarket and that creates jobs’. It’s a well-worn old trick of the mining industry.”

APPEA director of external affairs Michael Bradley points to a McKinsey & Co report from May 2013 that claims there is $180 billion worth of LNG projects under consideration in Australia. That figure, he says, would create 150,000 jobs across the Australian economy, although “not just directly in the oil and gas industry itself”.

Bradley also defends the claim of billions in tax revenue, although figures from the tax office and Bureau of Statistics reveal that in 2013 the oil and gas industry paid $1.3 billion in tax on profits of $20.2 billion – or just 6 per cent. Including the additional 8 per cent from the petroleum resource rent tax, the total tax paid by the oil and gas industry is just 14 per cent of profit. In Norway it is 78 per cent.

But perhaps the most controversial of all is the claim that fracking can be the bridge to a cleaner energy future. Bradley says: “Hydraulic fracturing technologies actually lower the environmental footprint by increasing the flow of oil and gas to wells, which increases production per well and reduces the total number of wells needed to develop resources. Technologies such as multi-pad drilling reduce the environmental footprint further by allowing multiple gas wells (4-5) to be drilled from the same drill pad, reducing impact on land.”

The argument here is that the narrower wells needed for fracking are grouped together and hence disrupt a smaller area of land on the surface than other gas and oil drilling methods.

Bradley says the industry is technologically advanced and has a “critical role” to play in producing clean energy. “The political interests aligned against the industry may not like it, but this industry has nothing to fear from a science-based debate,” he says.

Developer-turned-critic

Anthony Ingraffea, Dwight C. Baum professor in engineering at Cornell University, was one of the original developers of the fracking technique in the ’70s and ’80s. Ingraffea has become a critic of an industry he now sees as a very extreme form of energy development.

“No doubt the industry is technologically advanced, but that is not the question,” he says. “Is it the best source of a sustainable, secure, independent and environmentally benign energy supply that also fights climate change? No.”

Ingraffea says the impermeability of fracking drives the method of extraction to its extremes. “When one has to inject 100 times more fracking fluid, produce that much more waste, and closely space those multi-well pads that take years to completely develop, so that the lateral parts of the wells are a mere 150 metres apart over an entire field, one can hardly conclude that this is just ‘business as usual’,” he says.

“In short, these techniques leak. You’re producing more fossil fuels and the dirtiest fossil fuel at a time when we need to be cutting back, urgently.”

Stressing that he is not an activist, Ingraffea has become a target of industry vilification, including claims made in The West Australian newspaper by Stedman Ellis, APPEA’s western region chief operating officer. Ellis described Ingraffea as a “discredited source ... well-known for his anti-gas advocacy and activism, whose research has drawn significant criticism from US government regulators”.

Yet Ingraffea is regularly called upon by the US Environmental Protection Agency for his civil engineering expertise and has published more than 250 papers on the subject. He was one of Time magazine’s People Who Mattered in 2011. “Some very impolite and unprofessional things have been said about me and my university, about my colleagues at Cornell and at other prestigious universities like Duke. I’m aware of those things and when I analyse what’s written I find it to be technically incompetent and misinformed. That’s a polite way of saying they are lying. They know that the public are new to this idea of fracking shale to get gas or oil. They are banking on having a receptive audience of people who are willing to listen to bullshit – if you’ll pardon my French.”

Meanwhile, the Our Natural Advantage campaign to create a positive image for fracking continues. In classrooms, children can expect to hear more of the oil and gas industry’s “educational perspective”.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 5, 2014 as "The good oil on fracking". Subscribe here.

James Norman
is a Melbourne-based writer and the author of the biography Bob Brown: Gentle Revolutionary.

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