Fracking bad language: hydraulic fracturing and earthquake risks

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Hydraulic fracturing, fracking, is a well stimulation technique used to enhance permeability to aid geological resource management, including the extraction of shale gas. The process of hydraulic fracturing can induce seismicity and the risk of seismicity is a topic of widespread interest and is often reported to be an issue of public concern regarding hydraulic fracturing. This is particularly the case in the UK, where seismicity induced by hydraulic fracturing has halted shale gas operations, and triggered moratoria. However, there seems a disconnect between the level of risk and concern around seismicity caused by shale gas operations as perceived by publics and that reported by expert groups (from industry, policy, and academia), which could manifest in the terminology used to describe the seismic events (tremors, earthquakes, micro-earthquakes). In this paper, we examine the conclusions on induced seismicity and hydraulic fracturing from expert-led public facing reports on shale gas published between 2012 and 2018 and the terminology used in these reports. We compare these to results from studies conducted in the same time period that explore public views on hydraulic fracturing and seismicity. Further, we surveyed participants at professional and public events on shale gas held throughout 2014 to elicit whether they associate shale gas with earthquakes. We use the same question that was used in a series of surveys of the UK publics in the period 2012–2016, but we asked our participants to provide the reasoning for the answer they gave. By examining the rationale provided for their answers we find that an apparent polarisation of views amongst experts is an artefact and in fact responses are confounded by ambiguity of language around earthquake risk, magnitude, and scale. We find that different terms are used to describe earthquakes, often in an attempt to express the magnitude, shaking, or risk presented by the earthquake, but that these terms are poorly defined and ambiguous and do not translate into everyday language usage. Such “fracking bad language” has led to challenges in the perception and communication of risks around earthquakes and hydraulic fracturing, and leaves language susceptible to emotional loading and misinterpretation. We call for multi-method approaches to understand perceived risks around geoenergy resources, and suggest that adopting a shared language framework to describe earthquakes would alleviate miscommunication and misperceptions. This work is relevant for a range of applications where risks are challenging to conceptualise and poorly constrained; particularly those of public interest where language inconsistency can exacerbate communication challenges and can have widespread consequence.
Original languageEnglish
JournalGeoscience Communication
Publication statusSubmitted - 16 Jul 2020


  • language
  • risk
  • communication
  • shale gas
  • UK
  • induced seismicity
  • earthquake

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