Indiana University researchers say fracking fears likely to grow as opponents push for bans
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BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- With voters and courts weighing the future of fracking, a practice used to extract oil and gas, Indiana University researchers say some Americans are apprehensive about the technology and may grow more so.
Opponents of unconventional gas development -- also known as UGD and including but not limited to the controversial process of hydraulic fracturing or fracking -- have pushed for statewide or local bans of the practice in Colorado, Ohio, Michigan, New York, California and other states.
"There is ample reason to predict growing public concerns about risk as UGD expands in the United States," said study author John Rupp, a senior research scientist at the Indiana Geological Survey and an adjunct faculty member at IU's School of Public and Environmental Affairs.
Opposition is intensifying even though the researchers point out there hasn’t been a highly publicized accident similar in scope to the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil blowout and spill. They say such an unlikely event would trigger even stronger demands to prohibit the technique for use in extracting oil and gas from shale deposits.
One key, they say, will be establishing a culture of transparency by the industry and its regulators.
"Concerns tend to escalate when information about potential hazards associated with the practice are not fully disclosed," Rupp said.
A bright spot in the findings is that leaders of the energy industry, along with municipal and regional government officials who see unconventional gas development as an economic booster, have the opportunity to help shape the discussion.
"Despite the fact that, in little more than a decade, UGD has made the U.S. the No. 1 gas producer in the world, surveys indicate many Americans don’t know much about it," Rupp said. "That means proponents of the technology still have time to shape public understanding of the details of the practice and its benefits."
Rupp and co-authors John D. Graham and Olga Schenk analyzed risk-perception and risk-governance theories and recent public opinion surveys. Their article, "Unconventional Gas Development in the USA: Exploring the Risk Perception Issues," was published in the journal Risk Analysis.
The researchers say studies indicate people base their sense of risk on several factors including:
- Familiarity -- Traffic accidents, for example, are more acceptable because they’re more familiar than an unconventional gas development incident.
- Voluntariness -- When a hazard is imposed on a community without citizen consent, people are more apprehensive.
- Catastrophic potential -- Perceived risk rises when a large amount of damage can occur at one time or location, even if the probability is low.
- Natural versus human-induced hazards -- A greater sense of guilt is associated when humans are to blame.
- Impact on children and future generations -- Concern is heightened when victims include children, pregnant women and people not yet born.
"The potential risks associated with UGD, such as drinking water contamination, would seem to activate virtually all of the risk-perception factors," Graham said, noting that opponents have effectively elevated fears by emphasizing the scenario of drinking water polluted by migrating fracking chemicals.
Another potential trigger for increased opposition comes in the form of seismic activity. Scientists are studying whether the drilling/fracturing process and deep-well injection of unconventional gas development wastes can cause earthquakes. A major tremor that causes widespread damage or injuries will likely intensify the perception that unconventional gas development is risky.
While water contamination and seismicity top the concerns of environmentalists, the IU research team points out that residents who live in unconventional gas development areas have other worries.
"The concerns of residents living in close proximity to UGD require consideration," Rupp said. "They may be concerned about daily nuisances such as traffic, congestion, odor and unwanted changes to the character of their community."
To counter the likelihood that the perception of risk connected to unconventional gas development will grow, Graham, Rupp and Schenk urge government officials and the scientific community to take several steps:
- State regulatory systems must quickly ramp up. "To accomplish a high degree of public trust, state regulators must demonstrate that they can be both proactive in preventing problems and responsive to unexpected concerns," the Risk Analysis article noted.
- Industry associations must require use of best practices and consider voluntary certification and other steps that encourage companies to emphasize safety and sustainability.
- National political figures must avoid turning unconventional gas development into a polarizing issue along political lines. President Barack Obama has taken a strong pro-gas position, irritating organized environmental advocates. "No matter their stance on UGD, Obama’s successor should listen to the concerns of the industry, regulators, environmentalists and local citizens,” Graham said. "Taking appropriate actions will diminish the perception of risk and, more importantly, the actual risk.”
Graham is dean of IU’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs. Schenk was a visiting researcher at SPEA and is now a policy officer for Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy.
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