47th Annual AAPG-SPE Eastern Section Joint Meeting

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Understanding Public Perception of the Terms Clean Coal and Fracking


Many in the mainstream media consider “clean coal” and “fracking” to be synonymous with the continued use of fossil fuels and that these technologies contribute the destruction of the environment. This negative perception has made these two technologies more difficult to implement in new regions of the U.S. and the world. Far from a recent term, clean coal was first used in the nineteenth and early twentieth century because coal producers were increasingly “diluting” their product by adding dust, stones, wood, and other substances to artificially inflate its volume. The term has been continually repurposed every few decades to address a perceived “dirtiness” of coal at the time. By the 1940’s, “clean coal” referred to coal that reduced soot and ash emissions in household use. In 1970 the first reference to “acid rain” appeared followed quickly by a series of articles connecting industrial pollution (coal-fired in particular) to highly acidic rainfall. Clean coal was reinvented the following decade with the implementation of sulfur-reducing pollution controls to reduce the air pollution of coal burning. By 2007, the term clean coal was being used to describe the creation of coal fired power plants that do not emit carbon dioxide and hence do not contribute to climate change. Although hydraulic fracking has been used to improve oil and gas recovery since the 1940’s, the term “fracking” first entered mainstream media consciousness in Fall 2009. By 2012, comic Scott Adams’ Dilbert character listens as the CEO outlines project “Fracking Awesome” to trigger earthquakes and pollute the water under a competitor’s headquarters, highlighting the rapid spread of negative perception towards fracking in American popular culture. Online imagery of fracking emphasizes the perceived risk of drinking water contamination. In short, from its debut in the public consciousness, fracking has been synonymous with the image of deadly chemicals poisoning the public’s water, while earthquakes have received comparatively little attention, though media and web focus appears to be shifting from water to broader perceived environmental risks. It is important to understand public perception given that energy projects more often die through public perception than technological feasibility. The industry thus needs to better understand how the public sees energy projects in order to better explain their benefits and address the public’s fears.