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No Matter How You Spell It, Fracking Stirs Controversy


OK. The word fracking was added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary this month. It is defined as the injection of fluid into shale beds at high pressure in order to free up petroleum resources. Despite getting this official definition, both the spelling and meaning of fracking remain controversial. Marie Cusick, from member station WITF, reports.

MARIE CUSICK, BYLINE: This is a fracking site in northeastern Pennsylvania. It's one of the most productive parts of Marcellus Shale natural gas formation.

LARRY FULMER: My name is Larry Fulmer. I'm the frac superintendent for Cabot Oil and Gas in the Northeast region.

CUSICK: Fulmer says he's been safely fracking for decades. Actually, he's been hydraulically fracturing, and like many in the industry, he prefers to spell fracking with a C apostrophe ING.

He believes the more popular - and now dictionary spelling - of fracking with a K is a deliberate attempt to make it look more like that other word that begins with an F and ends with a CK.

FULMER: It actually was a term that was brought about by people who are against the exploration of natural gas up here. And they added the K to make it look like a bad word - to diminish what we're doing.

CUSICK: It's true that fracking has sparked fierce opposition from many environmentalists who worry about its effects on air and water quality. They often do use it as a substitution for the F word, holding signs at rallies with slogans like frack off and no fracking way.


CROWD: (Chanting) No fracking way. No fracking way. Let's hear it.

CUSICK: But in this case, Peter Sokolowski says the spelling is purely a coincidence. He's the editor-at-large for the Merriam-Webster dictionary.

PETER SOKOLOWSKI: Without the K, it would very often be read, perhaps, with a soft C. So I'm going to guess that this is more phonetic than ideological.

CUSICK: The first known written citation of the word dates back to 1953 in a headline for an oil and gas industry journal that reads "Fracking: A New Exploratory Tool." It's spelled with a K. But as the use of fracking has greatly expanded, so has its meaning, says Scott Perry, head of the Oil and Gas Bureau of Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection.

SCOTT PERRY: Fracking has taken on a meaning that involves everything from building the well site, to drilling the well, to actually hydraulically fracturing the well, to plugging the well, to site restoration.

CUSICK: The battle over the word is part of a larger high-stakes debate over gas development. Environmental opponents point to cases of water contamination and accidents. But the industry insists it can be done safely. Many people who work in the oil and gas business avoid the term fracking. Earlier this spring, more than 2,000 people turned out for a pro-gas rally at Pennsylvania's state capitol.


CROWD: (Chanting) Energy equals jobs. Energy equals jobs.

CUSICK: Instead of fracking, their T-shirts and signs had words like energy, jobs and shale gas. But some have embraced the F word, like Matt Pittzarella, a spokesman for one of the state's biggest drillers, Range Resources.

MATT PITTZARELLA: The reality is if you don't use the word, you're not going to be part of that discussion because no one else uses it, right? If someone goes on the Internet and they start typing in fracking, and the industry uses a C with an apostrophe, you're going to lose opportunities to talk to people.

CUSICK: As fracking continues across the country, the editors at Merriam-Webster have their eye on other iterations of the word. Both the verb form, to frack, and the adjective, as in fracked gas, could soon be new additions to the dictionary. For NPR News, I'm Marie Cusick.

GREENE: Marie's story comes from StateImpact Pennsylvania, a public radio reporting project focusing on Pennsylvania's energy economy. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Marie Cusick is the WMHT/Capital Region reporter for the Innovation Trail and New York NOW.