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

September 10, 2013
Deborah Bailin
Former contributor

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.