​Fracking and earthquakes: When the "facts" get fractured, nobody wins...

Image: Precision Drilling

“Facts” are funny things.

In theory, facts should be the arbiter of the truth of things; facts carry the burden of neutrality and evidence-based “proving” up of, say, a particular theoretical proposition. The “facts” should be the basis upon which two parties at odds with each other should work toward resolution.

But facts lose their efficacy as being factual in a variety of ways, not the least of which is when facts are enslaved to opinions and perspectives that are rarely connected factually to each other. It’s the interplay between “fact” and “opinion” that does a disservice to the facts themselves – and in the process, to anyone interested in learning the facts.

Witness how the facts lost the credibility battle this week, with the release of new research that links hydraulic fracturing activity in the WCSB to seismic activity in areas of oil and gas development. It hit the headlines and airwaves everywhere.

The fact of that matter is the link is already known. It’s not a new fact at all; this research program simply quantifies empirically at a more detailed level something that was already empirically known to industry and those who regulate it in Alberta and British Columbia.

(Latest missive was published in the May/June edition of Seismological Research Letters).

It points out factually some newer dynamics (fracturing activity itself as a catalyst for seismic events rather than water injection, for example, as contrasted with understanding of such events in U.S. centres).

But despite this being known, and like all such studies it comes with qualifiers and caveats, it is presented in the mediasphere as a new set of “facts” of sorts.

But this media coverage and its knock-on implications must also be considered within the context of a conventional media model that long prided itself as being objective and balanced and a purveyor of the facts. The reality is that this media model is profoundly broken because its underlying business model has crumbled.

Yes, a national broadcaster still exists, as does a national newspaper. To a degree, they retain some of the credibility they once enjoyed in the “fact” space. But the fractured business model upon which they valiantly struggle no longer provides the necessary revenues and profits that for so long funded the “facts” in terms of newsrooms and staff equipped with the time and manpower to “get it right."

If anything, reporters and editors are increasingly less literate on complex issues such as hydraulic fracturing simply because they no longer have the luxury of time to bone up on the basics.

Call it hydraulic “facturing” if you well, a process via which the factual foundation of any important issue is shattered and it spins out into the public domain ruptured from any meaningful context.

Nobody wins and everyone suffers with a misplay of the facts contribute to polarization.

As well, the mainstream media finds itself often in death throes competition with social media – in which the facts and their efficient rooting in appropriate context is of little regard – to produce content that grabs attention in an information era in which anyone with a smartphone and five minutes is a content producer. Time to “publish” is a cruel dictator and so the mainstream media is at the mercy of the Internet’s disregard for effective context curation.

Put bluntly, the mainstream (legacy) media is caught in a complex confluence of changing information production and consumption patterns. In this regard, it’s important to understand the nuanced relationship between facts and the contexts that produce them and the narrowness of scope through which complex issues that have policy, economic and social dimensions are subjected to thorough scrutiny.

Consider the following quote from Ben Parfitt, a resource analyst for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, who suggests that it may be only a matter of time before a fracking earthquake does serious harm.

"The frightening thing about the linkages between these drilling and fracking activities and earthquakes is that the professionals who look at the industry and try and understand what is going on below the surface actually have no way of predicting what's going to happen," he said.

This is presented as a “fact,” for example, by the Globe and Mail’s coverage – but it stands in stark contrast to the research facts previously presented in the same article. Not only does it essentially contradict them as facts (ie, percentages of actual wells causally linked to seismic events) and erode their credibility, it is in itself not factual.

The industry professionals who look at the fracturing-seismic activity relationship through a scientific lens have an increasingly sounder understanding of what’s going on subsurface. Industry itself has invested heavily in new and more sensitive technology to measure seismic activity not only to respond effectively to public (and regulatory) concerns, but also to ensure the industry’s development activity is both environmentally and economically sustainable.

Industry groups like the Canadian Society for Unconventional Resources are at the forefront of these discussions, creating important connectivity between regulators and operators and communities and research enterprises. CSUR stands as a clear and neutral advocate not for ramped-up industry development as some might suggest, but for a scientifically grounded, empirically framed dialogue between all parties.

But that doesn’t make for catchy headlines. It’s a old truism in the press: Never let the facts stand in the way of a good story.

Research by the scientific community, independent of the industry’s own investigatory efforts, adds tremendous value and deeper understanding – but not when the facts which the research foregrounds are fractured by ill-informed agendas and media myopia.

(Full disclosure: the author is a director and nominations chair on the board of directors for the Canadian Society for Unconventional Resources.)