Exxon Mobil is taking heat over its plans to increase hydraulic fracturing in the United States, and the company wants to answer its critics.
Hydraulic fracturing, commonly referred to as fracking, is the process of injecting chemicals deep into the ground to access natural gas supplies. Reports of lax oversight in Pennsylvania, tainted drinking water in New York, contamination in Colorado, and diesel fuel spills in Texas have prompted nationwide criticism of the process.
Exxon is embarking on a public relations campaign to share its side of the story. According to a report in the Edmonton Journal, "ExxonMobil Corp. is planning an advertising campaign to defend natural-gas drilling techniques that landowners and environmental groups say are contaminating drinking water.” The commercials are likely to come out soon, and Exxon’s CEO is speaking out now.
At the company's annual shareholder meeting in Texas, Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson blamed journalists for raising concerns about fracking. “As often happens with these things, the early detractors slap a label on something and it takes a long time to peel it off. And you guys help them slap it on there,” Tillerson said. The labels that Tillerson talks about generally fall into three categories: water contamination, handling of used frack water and air pollution.
Fear of water contamination first arose a few years ago when methane from nearby frack wells in Colorado's Garfield County were found in the West Divide Creek. The scientist who conducted that study, Dr. Geoffrey Thyne, was ridiculed for his findings and subsequently did not have his contract renewed at the Colorado School of Mines. Thyne said donors to the school were not happy with the findings.
The handling of used frack water has become a concern in heavily fracked Pennsylvania and Arkansas. In Pennsylvania, where wastewater from fracking can be dumped into waterways, radioactivity has been found in rivers and streams, according to a New York Times report. In Arkansas, wastewater is stored in containment wells. Since fracking began there and more containment wells have been drilled, earthquakes have sprung up in record numbers. Some say it is a coincidence, but similar seismic activity occurred in Colorado a few decades back when containment wells were drilled there. Just a month ago, David Neslin, the head of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, told Congress that contamination from fracking had never occurred but when pressed afterwards, Neslin admitted that failures in containment wells and other processes associated with fracking had lead to groundwater contamination. Still, Neslin claimed he wasn’t lying to Congress because, in his opinion, these practices —like storing the wastewater and the creation of containment wells — are not part of the fracking process.
Greenhouse gas emissions
There's also a new study that suggests that natural gas production may produce as many greenhouse gas emissions as coal production. That study, conducted by a team of Cornell University professors, concluded that more studies should be done to examine the issue of greenhouse gas emissions. Despite the study's relatively benign conclusion, it has led to a campaign funded by the American Natural Gas Association to attack the credibility of the researcher who conducted the study.
Now, Exxon is doing some public relations, and for good reason. Last year, Exxon bought Fort Worth natural gas producer XTO Energy, making the combined company the largest natural gas producer in the U.S. For Exxon, there is a lot at stake.