CORVALLIS, Ore. - A survey of Americans' attitudes toward the use of hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," to access natural gas and oil found that half of those surveyed knew little or nothing of the issue – and those that did were split almost evenly on whether to support it.
Fracking has become an increasingly important and contentious issue in many parts of the United States and throughout the world, as the push to acquire new sources of energy intensifies. Yet the survey of more than 1,000 citizens found "an American populace that is largely unaware of and undecided about this issue," the authors say.
Results of the survey and corresponding study have been published in the journal Energy Policy by researchers at Oregon State University, George Mason University, and Yale University. It was funded by the Surdna Foundation, the 11th Hour Project, the Grantham Foundation and the V.K. Rasmussen Foundation.
"It isn't really unusual for lay audiences to be uninformed about specific technical issues such as fracking," said Hilary Boudet, a public policy expert at Oregon State University and lead author on the study. "And when you get into issues of oil and gas exploration, or other contentious areas, the public gets conflicting information from the different sides that have vested interests in the outcomes.
"The fact that half of the people we surveyed know little if anything about fracking suggests that there may be an opportunity to educate the American citizenry in a non-partisan way about this important issue," she added. "The question is, who will lead that discussion?"
Hydraulic fracturing involves drilling horizontally through a rock layer of the Earth and injecting a pressurized mixture of water, sand and chemicals into the ground that fractures the rock and facilitates the flow of energy sources, especially natural gas.
Supporters of fracking argue that the technology will spur economic growth, lead to more secure domestic energy supplies and trigger a rapid transition away from more carbon-intensive, coal-based electricity generation.
Opponents say there are potential adverse effects on the environment – and perhaps surrounding communities – because of the use of chemicals and large amounts of water that are injected into the subsurface.
A growing concern among the scientific community, the researchers say, is that the fracking technology itself may result in the leakage of methane into the atmosphere.
"If the argument is that we need natural gas to mitigate our dependency on other fossil fuels and to lower greenhouse gas emissions, it doesn't make much sense to use a technology that could, in fact, increase methane emissions," said Boudet, an assistant professor in the School of Public Policy in OSU's College of Liberal Arts. "Methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide."
The national survey found that opponents of fracking were more likely to be women, hold egalitarian world views, read newspapers more than once a week, and associate fracking with environmental impacts.
Supporters of fracking tend to be older, hold a bachelor's degree or higher, are politically conservative, watch television for news more than once a week, and associate fracking with economic or energy supply benefits.
The researchers note that some studies have projected that a rapid increase of fracking could make the United States a net exporter of natural gas in the coming years, and potentially one of the world's largest oil producers.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration says that shale gas, which today accounts for 23 percent of natural gas production in the U.S., will increase to 49 percent by the year 2035.
"These are just estimates, and the public debate over the use of fracking is just beginning," Boudet said. "In some areas of the country, including New York and Pennsylvania, people are more familiar with the issue, but opinions are still divided as they try to balance the economic and energy benefits against environmental and community impacts."