What the frack?


Not an accurate representation of how fracking works.

One of the unexpected controversies I encountered in writing my biography of Houston energy pioneer George Mitchell was the spelling of “fracking.” Many of the oil and gas sources I interviewed for the book insisted that spelling the word with a “k” was offensive. I decided to stick with the common spelling of “fracking,” but I did add a note explaining my choice:


Many geologists and petroleum engineers object to the spelling of “fracking.” Because the term is short for “fracturing,” they argue it should be spelled without the “k.” Indeed, early scientific papers written about the technique often refer to the need to “frac” a well, or the process itself as “fracing” or even “fraccing.” Phonetically, though, “fracing” would be pronounced “frace-ing.” As the technique entered the public lexicon, the “k” was added, in keeping with the tenets of English, and that is a practice I have continued
throughout this book.

Unfortunately for the industry, “frack” is also a euphemism for an expletive on the 1970s science fiction show Battlestar Galactica, and when that show was revived in 2004, the term was resurrected. The show’s popularity coincided with the widespread use of fracking. For many environmental groups, the irony was too delicious to ignore, and “fracking” became a derisive term applied to almost any form of drilling for oil or natural gas.

When the myths and hyperbole are stripped away, fracking has benefits as well as drawbacks, but for George Mitchell, it was part of a lifelong effort to make the world a better place.

This is one case where the English majors win. Of course, in George Mitchell’s day, fracking was considered an “unconventional” drilling method. Today, it’s common place. So maybe it’s time for a new term. On a recent podcast with the Houston Chronicle’s Nancy Sarnoff, I suggested “deep-earth rock massage.” Any other ideas?

If you’d like to read more about how fracking came into the mainstream, or how the man who made it work was also a champion of sustainable development, you can pre-order my book George P. Mtichell: Fracking, Sustainability, and an Unorthodox Quest to Save the Planet. It will be available in bookstores everywhere on Oct. 11.

About lorensteffy

Loren Steffy is the author of "George P. Mitchell: Fracking, Sustainability and an Unorthodox Quest to Save the Planet" (to be published in October 2019), "The Man Who Thought Like a Ship," and "Drowning in Oil: BP and the Reckless Pursuit of Profit." He is a writer at large for Texas Monthly, managing director for 30 Point Strategies and an executive producer for Rational Middle Media.
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