There are obvious parallels to the complaint made to the ASA over Cuadrilla's publicity material, and over an advert placed by the self-styled "Frack-Master" Chris Faulkner.
We in the UK are not the only country to provide an advertising regulator, and in this post I will report on a decision reached by the Publishing Advertisers Bureau in Australia.
Before I do so, however, I want to comment on the situation we now find ourselves in, where advertising standards agencies are finding themselves having to make judgements on what are, in some cases, quite complicated and technical issues, with very little understanding of the subject matter. I very much doubt that anyone at the ASA has any familiarity with oil and gas operations and/or regulation.
While I am sure that the ASA are used to dealing with complaints in subject areas they are not familiar with, I would suggest that this debate is very different to determining whether or not a new brand of shampoo really makes your hair feel 10 times silkier. Yet as an authoritative body it is inevitable that their pronouncements are taken very seriously indeed, when the more I think about it, the less reason I see to do so. Frack-Master Chris Faulkner summed the situation up: "the ASA has been both judge and jury in this case. They appear to have become unqualified experts in fracking and interpreting the complex issues surrounding fracking in the UK".
However, today's blog is about a decision in Australia. The opposition group Frack Free Geraldton (FFG), with support of the Conservation Council of Western Australia (CCWA), published an advert in the local rag, the Geraldton Guardian. The Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association (APPEA) submitted a compliant regarding the advert, which appears to have been upheld. In each case, the statements made by FFG and CCWA were found to be misleading and deceptive.
The statements, and the reasons for the findings, are discussed below.
"Shale fracking, the process of extracting gas by using toxic chemicals to crack deep rocks, can turn our water into a dangerous chemical cocktail"
It was found that this statement gives a misleading impression of the fracturing process, because it gives the impression that most of the fracking fluid is composed of toxic chemicals. It was found that "The statement that 'toxic chemicals' are used to crack deep rocks creates the impression that toxic chemicals 'alone', certainly not in such small percentage quantities are used to frack", which is not the case: frack fluid is 99% water, with only a small amount of additive, most or all of which is not toxic.
The statement finds that "to an ordinary reasonable reader the words of the advertisement and the accompanying illustration together create the impression that the amount of 'toxic chemical' used is a much greater concentration that is in fact the case", which is a misleading and deceptive exaggeration.
With regards to turning water into "a dangerous chemical cocktail", it was found that while there are risks posed by hydraulic fracturing, "the consensus of scientific data suggests that there have been no cases internationally of hydraulic shale gas fracturing inadvertently breaching a water source and thereby causing contamination", and that "a combination of research from around the world shows us that the risks are low".
Moreover, in their response to the complaint, CCWA "have not produced any evidence that hydraulic fracking fluid has in the course of any hydraulic shale gas fracking process permeated a fresh water aquifer. Its contentions are against the scientific literature".
"Research in the US has found that 6% of fracking wells leak into ground water in the first year"
Anyone who is familiar with this blog will already know why this statement is misleading. It is a topic I have discussed extensively. The 6% statistics refer to the number of wells that have some kind of casing or cement issue in one of the casing strings. However, wells have several casing strings to separate the production zone from any sensitive groundwater supplies. This means that a well with an issue in one casing string will not be spewing hydrocarbons into the environment. It's a belt-and-braces type approach.
A paper by King and King in 2013 (SPE) is instructive in this regard:
For US wells, while individual barrier failures (containment maintained and no pollution indicated) in a specific well group may range from very low to several percent (depending on geographical area, operator, era, well type and maintenance quality), actual well integrity failures are very rare. Well integrity failure is where all barriers fail and a leak is possible. True well integrity failure rates are two to three orders of magnitude lower than single barrier failure rates.In their response, the CCWA admit that their statement "is not materially correct", and it is therefore found to be "misleading and deceptive".
This is a point I've been making for some time, so it's good to see that even environmental bodies know that it is not correct to say that 6% (or 30% or 50% or whatever) of wells are leaking, even if they do still insist on claiming this in their promotional material.
"Once our water is contaminated, it will be forever"
This statement ignores the abundant evidence that while any contamination incident is bad, the damage is rarely permanent: wells that do leak can be repaired, spills can be remediated. For example, Considine et al. (2013) examine the environmental impacts from drilling in Pennsylvania, and find 25 incidents that they deem to be "serious". However, they find that in all but 6 cases the impacts had already been remediated satisfactorily. The APPEA provided similar examples of remediation in their supporting evidence for their complaint.
In contrast, "the contentions put forward by CCWA in support of this statement in its submission dated 22 August 2014 are without any independent scientific support. They are unsupported assertions."
As a result, it was found that "the statement that once contaminated water will forever be contaminated is not supported by contemporary scientific views and is misleading and deceptive."
For anyone interested in the original complaint, the CCWA rebuttal and the final decision, the documents are available below.
The original APPEA complaint is here.
The CCWA response is here.
Further APPEA comments are here.
The final decision is here.