Friday, 30 November 2012

Shale gas and opinion polls. Pt I: The USA

Shale gas extraction in the US has been an environmental disaster of unmitigated proportions, leaving a blighted wasteland of drill rigs, dead animals and exploding water supplies. The locals are distraught about the damage caused to their areas, but are crushed beneath the power of big gas companies. Surely they'd take any chance to speak out against this appalling practice?

This begs the question: what do the people living in above shale gas plays in the US actually think? An opinion poll by the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Social and Urban Research provides an interesting insight. Newspaper report here, and more details here, including the actual data tables.

The survey divides the results into 4 geographical areas. If Pennsylvanian geography isn't your strong point (don't be ashamed, I had to look this up too), Pittsburgh City is the center of Pittsburgh, Alleghany County is basically the Pittsburgh Metropolitan area, the 6 Counties are the wider suburban commuter belts, while the remaining 25 Counties make up half of rural Pennsylvania (and parts of W Viginia and Ohio).

The first thing to notice is that in all areas, those in favour of shale gas far outweigh those opposed. Overall, 45% somewhat or strongly support shale gas production, 25% somewhat or strongly oppose, and 30% are ambivalent. This is hardly the groundswell of opposition that anti-fracking advocates like to suggest, hardly evidence that the US experience is one of small gains for huge environmental cost, as suggested by Frome Council as justification for their decision to ban fracking. It is recognised that shale gas can have environmental issues, but that regulation can be improved (58% favour increased government oversight) but that the benefits have far outweighed any problems. Clearly, the US experience shows that shale gas extraction can produce significant benefit, but that appropriate regulatory oversight is necessary. I think that is a view that would resonate with most UK geologists.

It's also interesting to compare the responses by geography. Before doing so, note that the vast majority of shale gas extraction is done in rural PA: the 25 Counties. For obvious reasons, there's not a lot of drilling going on in the middle of Pittsburgh. With that in mind, notice that across the board, the most favourable views on shale gas are found from the residents of the 25 Counties, while the least favourable are found from people in Pittsburgh. For example, 29% of Pittsburghians somewhat or strongly oppose shale gas, while only 18% of those from the 25 Counties share these views.

There may well be demographic or political reasons for these differences, but the story this seems to paint to me is that the people in the countryside who are actually at 'ground-zero' for the drilling are in fact finding that the economic benefits to their small rural communities are far outweighing any negative impacts. Meanwhile, people in the city, who perhaps aren't exposed to shale gas extraction on a day-to-day, week-to-week basis, but are simply picking up on the sensationalist media stories (who always refer to shale gas as 'controversial'), as well as the scare stories of Josh Fox et al, and this is producing a less favourable view of shale gas than those who are actually on the ground and experiencing the effects first hand.

If opinion polls aren't your bag, you may have been aware of a small election or two in the US a month or so ago. As well as presidential elections, many local positions were up for grabs, many of them contested by candidates on 'anti-fracking' platforms. What happened? Across the board, candidates on anti-fracking platforms were defeated. Much like Pittsburgh, it appears that the majority of those opposed to fracking are those living in cities like New York, whose sole experience of shale gas is the videos shown in the media. Meanwhile, upstate in the Southern Tier counties, the locals are voting in candidates in favour of bringing in drilling, and voting out those in favour of a ban.

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