Explaining fracking

CBC News, especially in New Brunswick, has devoted a lot of coverage to the proposed development of shale gas through a process called hydraulic fracturing. An opponent of the development, Jim Emberger, thought the language used to describe fracking oversimplified it to the point of bias. I didn’t concur but agree that it’s interesting to ask how far you can reduce an idea and still give some meaning.

COMPLAINT

The CBC, especially in New Brunswick, has devoted a lot of coverage to a process of extracting natural gas from deep in the earth. The process is called hydraulic fracturing and it has generated a great deal of controversy. Hydraulic fracturing (often referred to as fracking) enables recovery of reservoirs of natural gas and oil that have been inaccessible until quite recently. While the process dates back to the late 1940s, modern technology has made it a growing extraction technique. There are currently about 200,000 fracking wells across Canada, mostly in the west, and other provinces are moving forward with exploration and development. Hydraulic fracturing is described in this way on the website of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA):

Hydraulic fracturing produces fractures in the rock formation that stimulate the flow of natural gas or oil, increasing the volumes that can be recovered. Wells may be drilled vertically hundreds to thousands of feet below the land surface and may include horizontal or directional sections extending thousands of feet.

Fractures are created by pumping large quantities of fluids at high pressure down a wellbore and into the target rock formation. Hydraulic fracturing fluid commonly consists of water, proppant and chemical additives that open and enlarge fractures within the rock formation. These fractures can extend several hundred feet away from the wellbore. The proppants - sand, ceramic pellets or other small incompressible particles - hold open the newly created fractures.

Once the injection process is completed, the internal pressure of the rock formation causes fluid to return to the surface through the wellbore. This fluid is known as both "flowback" and "produced water" and may contain the injected chemicals plus naturally occurring materials such as brines, metals, radionuclides, and hydrocarbons. The flowback and produced water is typically stored on site in tanks or pits before treatment, disposal or recycling. In many cases, it is injected underground for disposal. In areas where that is not an option, it may be treated and reused or processed by a wastewater treatment facility and then discharged to surface water.

Opponents of the development of shale gas by this method are concerned about contamination of water sources, the quantity of water required, seismic events, leaching of gas and chemicals to the surface, the type of chemicals used in the extraction process, and air quality around the wells, as well as other policy and economic issues. In New Brunswick, companies are testing and exploring to determine whether there are viable reserves to tap and the government is developing policy and a regulatory framework for the nascent industry. Exploration has begun, as have protests against it.

You are one of many citizens in the province who have been actively campaigning to halt the introduction of fracking. You have been quoted in CBC News articles on the many issues raised. You have concerns about the way the topic is being covered on the CBC News site. You wrote three times to express your objection to the recurring use of a description of the fracking process used in many stories to provide a summary for readers:

“Hydro-fracking is a process where companies inject a mixture of water, sand and chemicals into the ground, creating cracks in shale rock formations. That process allows companies to extract natural gas from areas that would otherwise go untapped.”

You felt in its brevity and simplification it was “useless” and in no way accurately reflected what really happens. You thought the lack of context made it impossible for readers to gain any useful understanding. You also objected to another repeated phrase used to sum up the concerns of those against the development of shale gas deposits:

“Opponents of the process say it could have a negative effect on local water supplies and many of them have held protests across the province.”

You wrote:

“In this current form they constitute propaganda. They are misleading by virtue of ignoring known facts (reported elsewhere by CBC itself) and by failing to provide any context. The first sentence makes hydro-fracking sound as benign as working in your yard – water, sand and a few chemicals. It needs modifiers to explain its scale and scope. If an atomic bomb were set off somewhere, you wouldn’t just describe it as ‘an explosion”. Context is critical to understanding.

The second sentence ignores even your own reporting about the concerns of the opposition, let alone news stories from around the world. Water quality is the only issue? Hardly.

Regardless of the reasons for adding these pro forma statements, they are, in fact, simplistic to the point of constituting disinformation, and are a disservice to your audience. If they need to be inserted, they should at least have a few modifiers in the first sentence and some facts in the second, as follows:

‘Hydraulic fracturing, also known as hydro-fracking, is a process where exploration companies inject a mixture of MILLIONS OF LITRES OF water, sand and THOUSANDS OF LITRES OF OFTEN TOXIC/CARCINOGENIC chemicals into the ground, creating cracks in shale rock formations to extract natural gas from areas that would otherwise go untapped.

‘Opponents are concerned the process will ruin the water supply, CAUSE SICKNESS AND DISEASE THROUGH POISONED WATER AND AIR, INDUSTRIALIZE THE RURAL LANDSCAPE, HARM AGRICULTURE AND TOURISM, DESTROY ROADS, NEGATIVELY IMPACT LOCAL SOCIAL STRUCTURE THROUGH A BOOM/BUST ECONOMY, AND WORSEN CLIMATE CHANGE.’”

You had a further concern with a story published June 6 on the CBC New Brunswick site. You thought the story was biased because there were quotes with links “to previous CBC stories from government and pro-shale figures about how much money could be made on shale gas…Yet there were no such quotes of links to other heavily covered CBC stories about how the province’s own Chief Medical Officer raised serious public health questions….”

Overall, you thought the use of the “boilerplate” phrases and the selective citations were “misleading, disillusioning and aggravating.” In response to the management reply you noted, “Any reader of your boilerplate trying to decide on whether or not hydrofracking is a good thing will not have sufficient information to make an informed decision.”

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Senior Director for Digital Media, Marissa Nelson, explained the purpose of the two paragraphs you objected to was to give readers “the context and background they need to understand the significance of the incremental developments we write about.” She said that the phrases used were a neutral way to describe fracking. She acknowledged that the single reference to a concern about water quality may be too narrow a focus. She felt that CBC News’s overall coverage enabled Canadians to make an informed decision about this contentious issue:

“I fully appreciate that you have a strong commitment to a particular point of view on this matter, but I am sure you understand that there are other Canadians who have equally strong commitments to other points of view. It is understandable that those who espouse a given cause may not feel that other opinions on the subject have the same validity as their own. Nevertheless, the fact remains that there are at least two sides to most stories. We believe that it is our obligation to cover issues fairly and truthfully, to inform Canadians in New Brunswick and across the country about what is happening, without bias or prejudice, and without telling them what to think. Our coverage will not necessarily please all our readers, but they do have a right to expect that we will be straightforward and honest. It is the CBC’s responsibility to ensure that Canadians are given the opportunity and the information they need to make up their own minds on important issues of the day. And I believe we are doing that.”

She disagreed with the characterization of the two quoted links you objected to. She said that one linked to a government minister who was urging protestors to remain peaceful, and the other was to an economist who said the industry could provide needed jobs. She also pointed out that those two stories in turn led to other stories questioning some aspects of shale gas development. She also pointed out that there were links to four more stories from an extensive series entitled “Fractured Future” which provided material from all sides of the issue.

REVIEW

Your concern raises some important questions about balance and fairness and how it is achieved. It is particularly acute when dealing with an issue such as this which is so divisive in the community and so complex on both policy and scientific levels. CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices begins by stating a commitment to serve the public interest in this way:

Our mission is to inform, to reveal, to contribute to the understanding of issues of public interest and to encourage citizens to participate in our free and democratic society.

The policies also call for a commitment to accuracy, fairness and balance. The body of work done by CBC News New Brunswick on hydraulic fracturing, especially its November 2011 series, Fractured Future, fulfills the policy requirement to help inform citizens on a matter of public interest. It approaches the topic from many perspectives. The coverage continues to do so. Your concern about the links on one story are unfounded – as Ms. Nelson pointed out, the first links lead to stories with further links, and on the left hand side is a link to the full coverage provided by Fractured Future.

Even if that were not the case, CBC policy calls for balance over a reasonable period of time. Given the ongoing nature of the coverage, that is happening.

This is a difficult story to cover because, as with many issues involving extractive industries that have such impact, there is duelling science. There is still disagreement among scientists about the level of risk involved with this technology and how it would be best managed, or if it can be managed to an acceptable level. One of the elements of the special series on fracking featured a radio interview with two prominent scientists, Anthony Ingraffea of Cornell University and Don Siegel from Princeton, with differing views of the impacts of the process in the United States. Radio host Paul Castle asked them if the problem is that there doesn’t seem to be a “right answer when it comes to shale gas development” and that there is not scientific study that will convince either side that the risk may be worth it. Professor Ingraffea’s answer is very instructive, and in a way sums up the challenge facing the journalists covering the development of the shale gas industry:

“But the basic question that you asked is how do we represent what appears to be an insolvable scientific problem, shouldn’t science answer the question, is this a safe extractive industry. Well you can’t answer the question is it safe. You can only assess risk.... But to assess risk you have to do the science first before you set the policy…. The science has not had time to be done. So that is what science does. It finds the problems and then you get your very best people to study it and then other people study it and other people try to repeat the experiment that other people have done. And eventually there is an overwhelming evidence of proof one way or another.”

I quoted the interview at length because it sums up the challenges the news staff face covering this story. They are trying to inform the public, reflect a variety of views, and weigh which ones most need to be reflected. That’s hard to do when there are still many unanswered questions. They need to do so dispassionately, without bias, and to assess how much information in any one article or report is adequate to provide context and meaning. One attempt to deal with it has been by trying to provide a brief bit of context and balance in each piece. You question its effectiveness and its accuracy and believe it actually does the opposite and could be considered propaganda.

The policy on accuracy states:

We seek out the truth in all matters of public interest. We invest our time and our skills to learn, understand and clearly explain the facts to our audience. The production techniques we use serve to present the content in a clear and accessible manner.

I do not think the phrasing that concerns you comes from a bias, or that it can be construed as propaganda. I agree with you that in its brevity, it misses a great deal of the complexity and nuance. It does not achieve a “clear and accessible manner.” I also agree that it does not provide enough information for a reader to make up his or her mind. But I don’t think that is a reasonable expectation. The paragraphs exist within the context of the article, the article in the context of the ongoing coverage, which meets all of CBC’s journalistic policy requirements. Senior news staff might want to think about the ways it might summarize the debate and its many issues if they continue to feel the need to do so.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman