If you watched the news, even if only sporadically, you’ve heard of “fracking.” If you follow progressive politics, you’ve heard of fracking. If you know much about modern energy production, you’ve heard of fracking. If you’re an environmentalist, you’ve probably protested fracking.

Half of America Doesn’t Know What Fracking Is

But those descriptions don’t apply to the 63% of Americans who’ve never heard of, or aren’t familiar with, the practice known as hydraulic fracturing. That’s the eye-opening finding of a new poll, and one that was carried out with a pretty decent sample size to boot. Here’s how the results break down:

Culture of Science/via

At The University of Texas at Austin, I work to understand the relationship between scientists, policymakers, and the public with regard to energy issues. The primary challenge is that “energy” is a very broad term that means a lot of different things to a lot of different people.

In our most recent round of the UT Energy Poll, nearly 2,400 people–representative of the U.S. based on census data–were surveyed about energy consumption, pricing, development and regulation. Below I have highlighted data on hydraulic fracturing and global climate change because these two topics make international headlines daily. Everyone seems to be talking about them, but as the poll results demonstrate, media coverage is not synonymous with public energy literacy and awareness.  – Sheril Kirshenbaum, University of Texas at Austin

That’s crazy. Fracking has fundamentally transformed the energy debate—and energy production—around the world. It has helped create the glut of natural gas we’re currently sitting on, and that in turn is helping to drive coal out of business. It also poses numerous health and environmental risks that everyone—especially those who live in fracking-impacted areas—should be aware of. It can contaminate groundwater, spur small earthquakes, blast methane emissions into the sky, etc.

The poll reveals that there’s a lot of work yet to be done on energy education (that’s a massive understatement all around)—the public can’t make informed decisions about the controversial practice if it doesn’t even say controversial practice exists, after all.

So, for those of you reading this who’ve never heard of fracking: It’s the process wherein companies blast a highly pressurized chemical cocktail deep down into the earth, in order to fracture the rock layer to gain access to reserves of oil or gas. Pass it on.

Fracking: Does Anyone Know The True Cost?

An oil well blowout in rural Alberta was traced back to a hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) operation over half a mile away. This event added oil and chemical spills to the mounting environmental impacts of the highly controversial fracking process on the environment, which already included water contamination and even earthquakes.

Fracking: Does Anyone Know The True Cost?

Fracking involves the injection of pressurized water, sand, chemicals, and solid objects (known as frac- balls) into the ground to disturb existing geological formations and release natural gas that may be trapped underground. While it is often described as a sophisticated engineering process, the variables and potential long-term impacts of fracking are difficult to measure. Fracking proponents will argue that the process and the fractures it creates in the ground are contained. The gushing oil well investigated in Alberta suggests this is not the case. So too, do the numerous reports of contaminated groundwater in U.S. and Canadian communities near fracking activities.

Are the fracking experts rolling the dice (or frac-balls) when they force these toxic cocktails into unstable formations or when they accidentally hit aquifers? While oil and gas companies have long denied any link between fracking and contaminated water, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has identified a link between the two, based on fracking activity taking place in Wyoming. If nothing else, government agencies and regulators in both countries should be concerned with the massive amount of water used in the fracking mixture.

As is often the case in energy extraction, the true cost of the process is not measured because this would require accounting for the consumption of one free resource (water) to generate an energy commodity. It would also require accounting for the visible and hidden damage fracking causes to the landscape.

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