Fracking is a buzz word, but few Americans know what it actually means. That is the conclusion of a recent survey published by researchers at Oregon State, George Mason and Yale universities.
More than half of the study’s 1,061 respondents reported knowing little or nothing of fracking. And almost 60 percent of those surveyed said they had no opinion on the subject.
Those findings run counter to the often contentious debates seen in Washington and state capitals around the country, where policy makers are weighing the benefits of increased oil and natural gas production against potential environmental damages.
“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,” said Hilary Boudet, a public policy expert at Oregon State and the study’s lead author. “The question is who will lead that discussion?”
U.S. shale formations containing vast quantities of previously inaccessible oil and gas have been opened in recent years thanks to new production techniques like horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, as fracking is officially known. To frack a rock formation is to inject a mixture of water, sand and chemicals into the ground at high pressure, causing it to fracture and release the oil and natural gas within.
Fracking is a crucial tool for opening oil and gas reserves in Wyoming. The federal government commonly holds that fracking is used to create 90 percent of oil and gas wells drilled on public lands, which make up nearly half of Wyoming.
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About 20 percent of respondents said they were opposed to fracking. Women were more likely to oppose fracking, as were those more familiar with the process. Opponents were apt to associate fracking with environmental degradation, hold egalitarian world views and get their news from newspapers.
Around 22 percent of those surveyed said they supported fracking. They tended to be older, better educated and politically conservative. Their primary news source was television, the survey found.
“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,” Boudet said.
The study said there is increasing concern among scientists about methane emissions emanating from natural gas production. Such emissions could nullify natural gas’s advantage as a less carbon-intensive source of electricity, the researchers said.
“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,” Boudet said. “Methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.”
The survey was conducted in September 2012 and has a margin of error of 3 percent.