By Jill Terner, PA Communications Intern, FracTracker Alliance
In the previous two installments of this three part series, I discussed how sustainability provides a common platform for people who support and deny the use of hydraulic fracturing to extract oil and natural gas from the ground. While these opposing sides may frequently use sustainability in their rhetoric, the term has different connotations depending on which side is presented. The dynamic definition of sustainability makes it a boundary object, or a term that many people can use in shared discourse, all while defining it in different nuanced ways1. This way, the definition of sustainability alters between groups of people, and may also change over time.
First, I wrote about how pro-industry groups tend to focus primarily on the economic angle of sustainability rather than a more holistic understanding when arguing that hydraulic fracturing is the best choice for local and national communities. In my second post, I discussed how pro-environment groups see sustainability as a multifaceted entity, treating social and environmental sustainability with as much importance as economic. Here, I will focus on what can cause differences in public perceptions of hydraulic fracturing, as well as what might be done to mitigate potential confusion caused by competing definitions of sustainability.
A Few Explanations for Differing Opinions
A national survey conducted in 2013 found that by and large, people had no opinion of hydraulic fracturing. This was probably due to the fact that the majority of respondents indicated that they had heard little to nothing about hydraulic fracturing also known as unconventional drilling. Those who did identify as having an opinion either for or against drilling were split nearly evenly*. While survey participants on both sides recognized that there could be several economic benefits related to industrial presence, they also acknowledged that distribution of these benefits might not be equitable. Additionally, recognition of environmental and social threats is correlated with a negative view of industry. The stronger a respondents’ concern is about damaging environmental and social outcomes resulting from drilling activities, the more likely they were to express negative opinions about the industry2.
What is responsible for this difference of opinion? One possible explanation lies in the level of drilling activity a given community is experiencing. In areas where hydraulic fracturing is more prevalent, residents are more likely to have leased their land to drilling companies, so they are more likely to adjust their attitude to reflect their actions. They have made a significant investment by leasing their land, so they are likely to be optimistic about the payoff3.
Relatedly, the length of time that industry has been active in an area might also affect public perceptions. When industry is relatively new, many residents of nearby communities are optimistic about the economic gains that it may bring. However, alongside this optimism, residents may also express trepidation regarding what the influx of new people and wealth might do to community integrity. Over time, though, residents of areas where industry has maintained a continued presence may have adjusted to the changes brought on by industry, or have had their initial fears mitigated3, 4,5.
Geographically speaking, proximity to a major metropolitan area may also play a role in public perception of unconventional drilling. In counties where there are more metropolitan areas, there is the potential for an increase in negative social side effects. For example, an increase in violent crimes5, 6, uneven distribution of wealth generated by industry4, and loss of community character4, 6, might be offset by the fact that the influx of new workers makes up a smaller proportion of the county population than in less urbanized counties4.
On a broader geographical scale, state-by-state differences in opinion could be largely due to how prohibitive or permissive laws are regarding drilling. In states such as New York, where legislation demonstrates concern for the environment and safety, residents may be more likely to see sustainability as something more than just economic. On the other hand, in states like Pennsylvania where legislation is relatively permissive, residents may be more likely to see economic sustainability as most important due to the political climate4. This view is also known as the chicken/egg phenomenon: does the public’s opinion sway legislation, or does legislation drive public opinion? Either way, the differences across state lines remains.
What can be done to better inform public opinion?
Above, I mentioned a study where researchers found that the vast majority of survey participants held no opinion regarding unconventional drilling, largely due to lack of knowledge about it2. Therefore making unbiased information readily available and understandable to the public will allow them to make informed opinions on the subject. For example, having access to objective literature regarding unconventional drilling provides the opportunity to increase awareness and inform individuals about the practice of hydraulic fracturing and its potential impacts. In order to have the most impact we must first asses where gaps in public knowledge lie. Engaging in projects such as community based participatory research and then qualitatively assessing the results will reveal common misconceptions or knowledge gaps that need to be addressed through educational programs.
Also, most predictions regarding the unconventional drilling boom are based on a boom-and-bust cycles of past industries4. For example, they look at longitudinal studies where representative groups of residents within communities are followed over time, and they also focus on existing communities affected by industry identifying the social, environmental, and economic outcomes related to industry. This way, any comparisons drawn would be within the same industry, even if they were between two different cities.
Finally, the information gleaned from community based participatory or longitudinal research should be presented by an unbiased party and made easily available. Promoting transparency within biased institutions is equally important. While each entity uses the term “sustainability” to dynamically fit its rhetorical needs, few entities prioritize the same kinds of sustainability. Therefore, it is up to industry, environmental groups, and independent researchers alike to provide a transparent atmosphere of honest information so that individuals can decide which understanding of sustainability they would like to see informing the progress of unconventional drilling in their communities.
About the Author
Jill Terner is an MPH candidate at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and a native Pittsburgher. Interning with FracTracker in fall of 2013 has cemented Jill’s interest in combining Environmental Public Health with her passion for Social Justice. After completing her MPH in May 2015, Jill hopes to find work helping people better understand, interact with, and mitigate threats to their environment – and how their environment impacts their health.
* 13% did not know how much they had heard about drilling, 39% had heard nothing at all, 16% had heard “a little”, 22% had heard “some”, and 9% had heard “a lot.” Of these respondents, 58% did not know/were undecided about whether they supported drilling, 20% were opposed, and 22% were supportive2.
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- Boudet, H., Carke, C., Bugden, D., Maibach, E., Roser-Renouf, C., & Leiserowitz, A. (2013). “fracking” controversy and communication: Using national survey data to understand public erceptions of hydraulic fracturing. Energy Policy, 65, 57-67.
- Kriesky, J., Goldstein, B. D., Zell, K., & Beach, S. (2013). Differing opinions about natural gas drillingin two adjacent counties with different livels of drilling activity. Energy Policy, 50, 228-236.
- Wynveen, B. J. (2011). A thematic analysis of local respondents’ perceptions of barnett shale energy development. Journal of Rural Social Sciences, 26(1), 8-31.
- Brasier, K. J., Filteau, M. R., McLaughlin, D. K., Jacquet, J., Stedman, R. C., Kelsey, T. W., & Goetz, S. J. (2011). Residents’ perceptions of community and environmental impacts from development of natural gas in the Marcellus Shale: A comparison of Pennsylvania and New York cases. Journal of Rural Social Sciences, 26(1), 32-61.
- Korfmacher, K. S., Jones, W. A., Malone, S. L., & Vinci, L. F. (2013). Public Health and High Volume Hydraulic Fracturing. New Solutions, 23(1) 13-31.