Recently, the Obama administration announced new regulations on hydraulic fracturing (fracking). These new national standards apply to federally owned lands only, which according to the US Department of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management produce 11% of the natural gas consumed in the US and 5% of the oil.

Fracking continues to be a hot button topic across the country—and for good reason. Take for instance, this article following President’ Obama’s announcement. I had been chatting with a colleague the day before about the pending regulations announcement, so I shot him a note with the story. His reply? “Water is more precious than oil.” Clearly this issue carries heavy weight in the hearts and minds of local stakeholders, no matter where they call home.

Per this Scientific American article, “The new rules promise to improve basic protections for drinking water by requiring drilling procedures that have long been standard on waste injection wells used by the drilling industry, but which have not been applied to new oil and gas wells used to extract resources.”

A lot of the backlash against fracking is that it may leak and contaminate groundwater and thus pollute drinking water. These new regulations are geared towards alleviating that concern, and address the following areas:

  • Requiring companies to encase their wells in cement through vulnerable areas where drinking water is present;
  • Pressure tests to ensure the wells can withstand high forces of fracking;
  • New geological analysis;
  • And prohibiting waste pits—forcing companies to abandon open pits and requiring the fluids used in fracking to be stored in covered tanks.

A number of these regulations have already been implemented at the state level but the regulations are the first nationwide mandate. “We think this is going to be a template for how the federal government expects the states to regulate water as part of their own oversight of fracking,” explained Kevin Book, managing director of energy research firm ClearView Energy Partners.

As with almost any bill, law, regulation or executive order that comes out of Washington, you find folks screaming on either side of the issue. These new regs don’t disappoint for that theater. Within minutes of the announcement, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (CA-23) issued a statement asserting, “This is why Washington’s bloated, inefficient bureaucracy should not impose uniform regulations on each different state, impeding our economic future.” Point taken.

On the other side, you have groups that think these regulations don’t go far enough. Cue Amy Mall, senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council: “The bottom line is: These rules fail to protect that nation’s public lands—home to our last wild places, and sources of drinking water for millions of people—from the risks of fracking.”

As PR professionals in the energy space, we truly understand how important it is for all parties to engage with local stakeholders to ensure the practice of fracking—and these new regulations—encourage energy development while protecting the people and environment. So how can you communicate this?

To dig deeper into this issue, last year we conducted a survey to find out what people really think about fracking. Mak Fracking Tracking Survey Graphic

We found that 57% of 1600 U.S. adults that responded believe that fracking is one of the three most important environmental issues today. Moreover, 65% said that they hear about fracking every week primarily through social media and internet news. In fact, it’s an issue that has levered the oil and gas industry into a state of chronic, simmering crisis…a condition that also afflicts financial services companies, the healthcare industry, the legal field and the federal government. After evaluating all of the replies and sentiments, we came to this conclusion. All of the parties are facing a choice between two alternative options:

  • Do nothing and open the door to confused, angry, fearful stakeholders demanding answers…and justice. Risk losing public trust and goodwill. Watch your market share and stock price plummet. Make way for the legislators and regulators.
  • Obtain a social license ensuring stakeholders accept your project or presence. A social license is not something you acquire by filling out an application and paying a fee. It takes responsible, ethical behavior, good relationships and timely, effective, forth­right communications. Doing so, allows you to build trust and credibility and better educate and collaborate with customers, activists and the general public.

Even with lower oil and gas prices, the issue of fracking won’t be disappearing anytime soon. These new regulations have done what thousands of regulations have done before them—anger industry folks while accomplishing some good and some bad. It’s important for all parties involved to understand that communications is no longer a one-way street; and to successfully sell the public on something as touchy as fracking, engagement is the best tactic.

@BSmithDC

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