Hydraulic Fracturing and Communicating Environmental Risks

At first blush, it would seem that hydraulic fracturing combined with horizontal drilling technology to harvest natural gas is an environmental panacea:

  • It provides abundant natural gas, which reduces the need for coal.  Using natural gas as opposed to coal reduces (among other emissions) global warming gases and NOx emissions – which, in turn, reduce eutrophication and acid rain.
  • The surface footprint for drilling is reduced as more subsurface drilling is accomplished with horizontal drilling.
  • And regulators from former EPA administer Lisa Jackson to state regulators have by and large offered support for the technology.

…perfect, right?  Not so much.

Why some view “fracking” as a panacea and others view it as an unacceptable risk is, perhaps, one of those environmental communication dilemmas.  Dr. Peter Sandman’s formula for environmental communication may help explain the current state of hydraulic fracturing (Risk = Hazard + Outrage).

Dr. Sandman offers a couple of other environmental risk communication thoughts to consider:

  1. Are people upset about a risk because they think it’s dangerous?  If this is the case, then the solution is to convince them it’s not dangerous, or
  2. Do people think it’s dangerous because they’re upset?  If this is the case, then the solution is to stop upsetting them.

Generally, it’s the latter of the two.  Obviously, this makes it that much more difficult from the standpoint of communication, because to stop upsetting them usually means ceasing your operations.

To make matters worse, technical people try to appease upset stakeholders by providing more data!  How well does that work?  Again, according to Sandman, they will resist data, and when you prove they are wrong, outrage is magnified.

Communicating environmental risks, whether it’s from hydraulic fracturing, manufacturing a widget, or farming, may well be one of the most challenging tasks for any business.  And if you think the answer is simply more data…then be prepared for more outrage.

Stakeholders (upset or otherwise) are informed daily by blogs, tweets, and various on-line communities.  And this reality will continue to pressure companies of all shapes and sizes to think seriously about how they communicate to minimize the outrage factor, not necessarily the hazard…and this is no small task!


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