Fracking bad language: hydraulic fracturing and earthquake risks

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Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a borehole stimulation technique used to enhance permeability in geological resource management, including the extraction of shale gas. The process of hydraulic fracturing can induce seismicity. The potential to induce seismicity is a topic of widespread interest and public concern, particularly in the UK where seismicity induced by hydraulic fracturing has halted shale gas operations and triggered moratoria. Prior to 2018, there seemed to be a disconnect between the conclusions of expert groups about the risk of adverse impacts from hydraulic-fracturing-induced seismicity and the reported level of public concern about hydraulic fracturing induced seismicity. Furthermore, a range of terminology was used to describe the induced seismicity (including tremors, earthquakes, seismic events, and micro-earthquakes) which could indicate the level of perceived risk. Using the UK as a case study, we examine the conclusions of expert-led public-facing reports on the risk (likelihood and impact) of seismicity induced by hydraulic fracturing for 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 explored views of the UK public on hydraulic fracturing and seismicity. Furthermore, we surveyed participants at professional and public events on shale gas held throughout 2014 asking the same question that was used in a series of surveys of the UK public in the period 2012–2016, i.e. “do you associate shale gas with earthquakes?”. 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 was actually the result of different interpretations of the language used to describe seismicity. Responses are confounded by the ambiguity of the language around earthquake risk, magnitude, and scale. We find that different terms are used in the survey responses to describe earthquakes, often in an attempt to express the risk (magnitude, shaking, and potential for adverse impact) presented by the earthquake, but that these terms are poorly defined and ambiguous and do not translate into everyday language usage. Such “bad language” around fracking has led to challenges in understanding, perceiving, and communicating risks around hydraulic-fracturing-induced seismicity. We call for multi-method approaches to understand the perceived risks around geoenergy resources and suggest that developing and adopting a shared language framework to describe earthquakes would alleviate miscommunication and misperceptions. Our findings are relevant to any applications that present – or are perceived to present – the risk of induced seismicity. More broadly, our work is relevant to any topics of public interest where language ambiguities muddle risk communication.
Original languageEnglish
Article number303-327
Pages (from-to)303-327
Number of pages25
JournalGeoscience Communication
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 11 Jun 2021


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


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