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Survey Says? Forum Attendees Shed Light on the Public’s Discussion on Hydraulic Fracturing

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Following the Center for Science and Democracy’s second successful Branscomb forum this past July, Science, Democracy, and Community Decisions on Fracking, we released a toolkit to help communities become more actively engaged on this important issue: Science, Democracy, and Fracking: A Guide for Community Residents and Policy Makers Facing Decisions over Hydraulic Fracturing.

We also wanted to learn more about how people are already engaging – about their impressions of the public dialogue, their concerns, and the conversations they’re having. To do this, UCS informally surveyed forum attendees through an online questionnaire. We received 139 responses and have summarized some of the highlights below.

Differences of Opinion, Differing Degrees of Knowledge

Chart_Q4_130906[1]

Survey respondents rate their knowledge level about fracking.

Respondents expressed a full spectrum of positions, ranging from “anti fracking to the tenth power” to “it should be allowed to continue but properly and thoughtfully regulated.” A majority of respondents, 71 percent, indicated some degree of suspicion about the process and its related industrial activities, although only 30 percent (42 respondents) said they were “opposed,”  “against,” or “anti.” Most fell in between the extremes of full opposition and full support. Approximately 41 percent (57 respondents) indicated they were at least somewhat open to fracking as a means to energy production but distrusted industry to operate safely and government to regulate effectively. Some felt that even if we had better regulations, enforcing them would be impossible.

Interestingly, respondents’ positions for or against did not necessarily align with their perceived knowledge levels. A majority of respondents felt they were already knowledgeable on the subject. Approximately 76 percent (105 respondents) rated themselves 7 or higher on a scale of 1-10. However, “knowledgeable” seemed to mean different things to different people. Some respondents who self-identified as scientists indicated their sources of information were peer-reviewed science journals and academic circles. Many of these held more moderate positions, calling for caution but also “more study and research.” Others who indicated they were not “experts” but had “researched” the subject “extensively” indicated their sources of information included peer-reviewed science journals sometimes but were most often anti-fracking websites, news media, and other materials, such as the Gasland movies. This group of respondents held the strongest anti-fracking views.

Dominant Words, Prevailing Concerns

Water: The survey asked eight questions. Throughout the responses, water featured prominently, but it ranked highest in terms of frequency in responses to these two questions:

  • When you hear the word “fracking,” what is the first thing that comes to mind?
  • Where do you stand on fracking issues?
fracking word web

Words most frequently used by survey respondents.

Although this finding may not be surprising given the amount of water required in the hydraulic fracturing process and known risks of contamination, it is certainly notable that water rose to the top in the frequency of its appearance in respondents’ answers. That is, for a process of extracting oil and gas often linked to economic issues, it is striking that a majority of respondents associated the word “fracking” primarily with water rather than “oil,” “gas,” “jobs,” “the economy,” or “energy independence.” Concerns about air pollution were also cited much less frequently than concerns about water.

Throughout the survey, respondents expressed concerns about how hydraulic fracturing and the industrial processes surrounding it would affect their water supply and water quality. Many respondents seemed reasonably informed and described their concerns in relation to scientific evidence on the risks posed by methane leakage, surface spills of frack fluids, and improper disposal of wastewater.

Chemicals: The word “chemicals” was also prominent. It was the most frequently used word in answer to the question “If you were to explain fracking to someone who hadn’t heard much about it before, what is the first thing you’d say?” This is understandable. People fear the most what they know the least about. And due to a lack of adequate disclosure laws about the chemicals used in the fracking process, public knowledge about what could be affecting water and air quality is severely limited.

Fears about chemical contamination also shed light on how public risk perceptions on fracking can be out of sync with the current understanding experts have of the risks. Some respondents indicated significant fears not supported by current scientific findings. For example, one respondent feared “long term pollution to drinking water worldwide,” although no current research has suggested such widespread risks to drinking water supplies. And in answer to the question about how to explain fracking to someone who hadn’t heard much about it before, another respondent expressed fears about the corporatization of access to water: “What if water was no longer a right for humans? What if water became a commodity on the stock market?”

Even though such fears are not currently supported by science, policy makers cannot afford to dismiss them. An extensive body of research on risk perception suggests that “[p]eople tend to be intolerant of risks that they perceive as being uncontrollable, having catastrophic potential, having fatal consequences, or bearing an inequitable distribution of risks and benefits.” In the case of fracking, a lack of baseline data, insufficient chemical disclosure, inadequate regulations, and inexplicable agency obstructions have led, quite reasonably, to the perception that fracking has uncontrollable or catastrophic consequences. If such heightened risks become apparent through further research, we would expect appropriate actions. In the meantime, policy makers have a responsibility to address research and regulatory deficiencies if they expect public perceptions of risk to change.

What You Can Do

Taking action on hydraulic fracturing and its related industrial activities can seem overwhelming to individuals and communities. There is at once an abundance of both complex information and uncertainty. But the first step can simply be engaging others in your community to build momentum and public conversation. Check out our toolkit and share it with your community! While many survey respondents rated themselves as highly knowledgeable, many also indicated they wanted more information, particularly about local issues. Our toolkit offers concrete suggestions to keep you informed and promote a more evidence-based public conversation.

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About the author: Deborah Bailin is a democracy analyst for UCS’s Center for Science and Democracy and researches political and societal barriers to formulating science-based policies. She came to UCS in 2012 as an ACLS Public Fellow and holds a PhD in English from the University of Maryland, where she studied the cultural influence of Charles Darwin on American literature. Subscribe to Deborah's posts

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  • http://wymanusa.org Stephen Wyman

    Have the, “Halliburton loopholes,” been identified and rescinded?

    If not then the federal government has few to no rules to use to control fracking, and the hydrocarbon industries can be trusted only to do what is best for their own profitability; not a good situation!

    As long as there is a radical, right wing, republican majority in the US House, we are unlikely to get useful federal regulation of fracking, and that just isn’t a good way to go. State by state regulation yields uneven regulatory environs over defective processes (e.g., cracked concrete drill pipe cladding) and products (e.g., fracking fluids, oil and gas that have migrated into different permeable layers of overburden; fracked cracks don’t automatically stop at the edge of the gas and oil bearing formation) that don’t stop at state lines.

    • http://www.ucsusa.org/about/staff/staff/deborah-bailin.html Deborah Bailin

      Hi Stephen, the Haliburton loopholes have indeed been identified and include exemptions from the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, and the lesser known but still very important Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration Rules and Regulations. However, despite the efforts of some lawmakers, these loopholes have not yet been closed. That doesn’t mean that they can’t be! Continued vigilance and pressure from constituents is necessary.

      To your point about industry, I do think there are some corporate actors that recognize the relationship between social responsibility, good regulations, and long-term (as opposed to short-term) profitability. And there are some voices out there advocating for innovation and a best practices approach that prioritizes safety. However, there are not nearly enough of them.

  • richard

    THANKS for an interesting summary. And for the toolkit on fracking. I have downloaded the latter and will spend some time reading through. I know it will enhance my knowledge and thus help me to write more accurate and, hopefully, effective emails to elected officials and agencies in the future.

    • http://www.ucsusa.org/about/staff/staff/deborah-bailin.html Deborah Bailin

      Glad you find it interesting and helpful — thanks, as always, for stopping by!

      • richard

        For those Californians who are concerned about fracking’s impact on the environment, you should know that the State Assembly is poised to consider a bill (SB 4) that came over from the State Senate which remove fracking from oversight under the California Environmental Quality Act. Ie, it would not allow the state authorities to regulate fracking in any significant way. Clearly, this bill was sponsored by the oil and nat gas industry in order to allow them free sailing in the future.

        I have written my Assemblymember to encourage her to vote NO on this bill. I included a link to the UCS toolkit on fracking as part of my email. Like minded UCS members who live in Calif should do likewise. This bill comes up for a vote in the next few days. So, do this SOON!

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