Pay more attention to public perceptions of fracing, speaker urges

Public impressions of unconventional oil and gas production in general and hydraulic fracturing in particular suggest more work needs to be done to give people actual information that will help them make intelligent decisions, a speaker at a Sept. 22 RTI International event suggested.

“Public opinion is volatile, and can change quickly,” noted Brian Southwell, who directs RTI’s Science and the Public Sphere Program and teaches at both Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “But social science research on the US energy renaissance is relatively new.”

The conversation is dominated now by groups that either support or oppose unconventional oil and gas resource development, and shape their information accordingly, Southwell said. “There’s still a lot of uncertainty among the general public,” he said. “How the issue is framed matters quite a bit. Simply calling hydraulic fracturing ‘fracking’ generally elicits a negative response, for example.”

There also apparently is general support for some degree of regulation, Southwell said. People generally are able to prioritize risk when they are given enough actual, unbiased information, he said. Some could consider in some cases how much they would be willing to pay to minimize problems such as surface water contamination and heavy truck traffic, he said.

“More work needs to be done,” he maintained. “We know public sentiment is fluid and responsive to new information. People have a general impression of risks from hydraulic fracturing and unconventional oil and gas production. Most have been unable to connect the dots.”

His remarks came at an event launching a new book, “Shale Oil and Gas: The Promise and the Peril (Second Edition),” published by RTI Press. Its author, Research Triangle Energy Consortium Executive Director Vikram Rao, said he updated the original version, which focused on unconventional natural gas production, because tight oil recovery has grown so dramatically since it was published.

Water use, methane emissions, and earthquakes linked to waste disposal are the main issues, Rao said. “How the public is affected is an important leg of the policy stool,” he said. “People need to be better informed.”

Other panelists included Anne Korin, co-director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security and a senior advisor at the US Energy Council, and Methanol Institute Chief Executive Greg Dolan. They discussed issues ranging from foreign market impacts of the US oil and gas renaissance to better ways the country possibly might take better advantage of its abundant gas supplies for transportation fuel.

Contact Nick Snow at

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