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The little-known story of how "fracking" entered our vocabulary

It's even spread to England!
Nigel Roddis/Getty Images

"True story," Matthew Lewis, a communications strategist based in San Francisco, told me recently over Twitter. "I put the 'k' in fracking."

As best I can verify, he is correct. I'd always wondered how the term "fracking," which has dominated energy discussions for years, worked its way into our vocabulary. And the backstory turns out to be pretty interesting.

The oil and gas industry, after all, rarely uses the term in public. They prefer "hydraulic fracturing" to describe the process by which water, chemicals, and sand are injected at high pressures underground to crack open shale rock and release oil and gas trapped inside. That has a nicer, more technical ring to it.

Opponents of the practice, by contrast, now widely use the shorthand "fracking." And why not? "Fracking" sounds ominous, like "whack" or "smack." For protestors focused on air and water pollution, "fracking" hits the right undertones. As in, no fracking way. Indeed, many in the oil and gas industry wish the media would quit using the shorthand.

So how did "fracking" come to be? I called Lewis to hear the tangled tale.

How "hydraulic fracturing" became "fracking"

Start in the 1990s, when hydraulic fracturing was a still-obscure method used by oil and gas companies to eke out more production from existing wells across the United States. At the time, environmentalists were just beginning to worry that the practice could cause water contamination in places like Colorado or Wyoming. So they sued the EPA to regulate hydraulic fracturing under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

They didn't get far. In 2001, the staunchly pro-oil White House energy task force, led by Vice President Dick Cheney, recommended that Congress exempt hydraulic fracturing from Safe Drinking Water Act regulations. Green groups cried foul, pointing out that one of the biggest hydraulic fracturing firms at the time was Halliburton — the company that Cheney had helmed in the '90s. A bona fide controversy was born. But newspapers still called it "hydraulic fracturing."

A few years later, in 2005, a Colorado nonprofit called the Oil and Gas Accountability Project (OGAP), part of Earthworks, released a report arguing that any exemption was a bad idea, since there simply wasn't enough good data to deem hydraulic fracturing safe for nearby water supplies. By now, the outrage around Cheney's energy task force had grown, and the report garnered interest from a few sharp-eyed reporters.

That's where Lewis came in. He was doing communications work for OGAP, and more journalists were asking him about this unfamiliar drilling practice. Industry materials usually referred to it as "hydraulic fracturing," but occasionally it would be "frac'ing" or refer to "frac jobs." And reporters weren't sure how to pronounce this. Long "a"? Short "a"? Soft "c"?

Lewis wanted to simplify things: "If you listened to grassroots activists in the West or roughnecks in the oil patches, they pronounced it 'fracking,' or said 'frack job.' So I said, let's print it the way people actually pronounce it. Let's not use the industry abbreviation; let's put in a 'k' and be done with it."

Although OGAP's 2005 report doesn't include the term "fracking," an accompanying press release does. This isn't the very first time that "fracking" with a "k" ever appeared: a Nexis search reveals a few scattered uses before then. But this does seem to be where it really caught on in the press. "A lot of subsequent coverage," Lewis says, "started using the 'k.'"

For example, Nexis shows that as shale-gas extraction spread to Pennsylvania in 2007 to 2008, local papers started widely using the term "fracking" — with many of those stories also citing the Oil and Gas Accountability Project as a source.

In the sci-fi TV show Battlestar Galactica, "frack" is the preferred substitute for "fuck." When I asked Lewis if that might have been an inspiration at all, he laughed and said he hadn't even seen the show yet — that association, at least, was pure coincidence.

Today, "fracking" is everywhere — and a dirty word for many

In the years since, the actual practice of fracking became much more widespread and consequential. Out in West Texas, a man named George Mitchell had been tinkering with hydraulic fracturing techniques to extract natural gas from underground shale rock formations, which had long been thought inaccessible. Finally, in the late 1990s, Mitchell figured out how to do it economically.

(jaddingt/ShutterstocK)

By the late 2000s, more companies were combining hydraulic fracturing with horizontal drilling techniques to pull up lots and lots of gas (and later crude oil) from shale formations in Texas, Pennsylvania, Ohio, North Dakota, and elsewhere. The fracking boom was underway, transforming the US economy, pushing coal plants out of business — but also creating fierce controversies over the risks of methane leaks and water pollution.

Today, "fracking" has become a dirty word for many environmentalists. Bernie Sanders has called for it to be banned altogether. And polls show that a growing number of Americans are opposed to the practice (even if it has led to a surge in oil and gas production and reduced energy prices). It's possible that the term "frack" — that harsh, spat-out syllable — has shaped public perceptions here in some small way.

"It's Madison Avenue hell," admitted Dave McCurdy, the CEO of the American Gas Association, in a 2012 interview with the AP about the word. A few years ago, the industry even tried to launch an ad campaign to reclaim "fracking."

Back in 2005, however, Lewis wasn't thinking of any of this. "We didn't add the 'k' to make it sound bad," he says. "That was just how people in the field were pronouncing it."

"In any case," Lewis adds, "it didn't really seem to slow the industry down at first." In July 2005, just three months after the new nickname was born, Congress voted to exempt hydraulic fracturing from Safe Drinking Water Act rules. The fight over fracking was only just beginning.

Further reading

— Here's an incredibly detailed timeline on the development of hydraulic fracturing from Food and Water Watch. It starts back in the 1930s.

— Jonathan Fahey of the AP wrote a great piece in 2012 on the word "fracking" and its myriad associations.

— A closer look at the environmental debate over fracking (which has become increasingly one-sided)

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