Mileah Kromer: A View from the States—Public Opinion and Hydraulic Fracturing in Maryland, New York, and Pennsylvania

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By: Mileah Kromer 

My hometown in rural Western Pennsylvania sits smack in the middle of the Marcellus Formation.   Just like me, my hometown friends are the grandchildren and children of coal miners; many of them now make a living working for the various natural gas companies throughout the region.  I live in Baltimore and can assure you that conversations about hydraulic fracturing in the Charm City are dramatically different than the conversations I have when visiting back home.  While always spirited and interesting, opinions from different groups of friends and acquaintances do not provide representative insight on statewide perceptions—for this, thankfully, we have polling. 

This fall the Goucher Poll asked Marylanders a series of questions concerning hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking.  Additionally, in April and May of 2014, as part of the National Surveys on Energy and Environment (NSEE) series, the Muhlenberg Institute of Public Opinion, in collaboration with the University of Michigan Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy (CLOSUP) and the University of Montreal, surveyed residents of New York and Pennsylvania on the topic. 

Our northern friends have two very different perspectives on fracking.  Pennsylvania has embraced the practice, while New York currently imposes a moratorium. To simplify the perspectives: Pennsylvania debates how they should tax and collect economic benefits from fracking; New York debates whether they should permit, and if so, regulate it.  The relationship between New York and Pennsylvania in regard to perceptions of hydraulic fracturing is of obvious interest to Maryland.  To date, Maryland has taken policy path on fracking similar to that of New York—one where concerns about environmental degradation are currently outweighing arguments for economic development.    

When discussing public opinion toward hydraulic fracturing in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New York, it is helpful to take a look at some of the maps provided by PennState’s Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research (MCOR). Here is what the maps show:  Only a small part of Western Maryland sits on the Marcellus Formation, compared to large areas in Pennsylvania and New York. 

Attention to Fracking

Pennsylvanians and New Yorkers are more aware of hydraulic fracturing than Marylanders.  Where 34% of Marylanders indicate that they had heard “nothing at all” about fracking, only around 10% of New York and Pennsylvania residents say they had “never heard” about the practice.  There is also a gap at the top end of the awareness scale—28% of Marylanders indicate they have heard “a lot” about fracking, compared to 34% and 37% of New York and Pennsylvania residents, respectively.

Risk Proposition/Threat Perception

The NSEE asked respondents to rate the seriousness of the risk posed by fracking to Americans’ health, safety, and environment on a scale of 0 to 10, where zero indicates “no risk” and 10 indicates “extreme risk.”

Risk Perceptions in NY and PA

 

NY

PA

Low Risk (0-2)

10

17

Moderate Risk (3-6)

39

50

High Risk (7-10)

52

33

 

The Goucher Poll asked Maryland residents whether they disagree or agree that hydraulic fracturing or fracking poses an environmental threat in Maryland. 

Fracking Poses a Threat in MD

 

MD

Disagree

21

Agree

59

DK/Ref

21

 

While the differences in question construction makes direct comparison more difficult, in general results do suggest that Marylanders’ views on the environmental riskiness of fracking are similar to that of New Yorkers—52% of New York residents rate fracking at a 7-10 on the riskiness scale and 59% of Marylanders agree that fracking poses an environmental threat in Maryland.  This is compared to only 33% percent of Pennsylvania residents who view fracking as high risk.

Economic Development and Moratoriums

One argument made by proponents of hydraulic fracturing is that Maryland is losing out to surrounding states on opportunities for economic growth by not issuing permits to drill in the Marcellus shale gas reserves in Western Maryland.

The NSEE provides additional insights on how residents view economic development and environmental regulations (i.e. moratoriums) across state lines. 

New York respondents were asked whether they agree/disagree with the following statement:  

“New York has lost out on economic growth to Pennsylvania because it has a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing and Pennsylvania does not.” And, Pennsylvania respondents were asked whether they agree/disagree with the following statement: “Pennsylvania has gained economic growth from New York because it allows hydraulic fracturing and New York does not.”

New Yorkers are divided on whether their statewide moratorium on fracking has resulted in a loss of economic growth to Pennsylvania; 42% agree, 31% disagree, and 27% are not sure.  On the other hand, half of Pennsylvania residents agree that their state has gained economic growth from New York because their state allows fracking and New York does not; another 19% disagree and 32% are not sure.

Maryland residents lean toward an environmentalist perspective concerning hydraulic fracturing, economic development, and regulation. The fall Goucher Poll found that 58% of residents think that the state should discourage fracking because of the potential environmental impacts, while 25% think the state should encourage it because of the potential economic benefits.  When asked about banning fracking in the state, 52% of Marylanders would support a ban, 31% would oppose it, and 17% are not sure. 

If New York—which sits on a much larger potential for economic benefit in the form of gas reserves than Maryland—is divided in resident perception on the loss of economic growth to Pennsylvania, it is likely that Marylanders won’t be swayed too heavily by the economic loss argument.  Polls suggest that the path to fracking in Maryland must be made on environmental, not economic, terms.  Companies who want to open Maryland up to hydraulic fracturing must convince a cautious populous that the method is not an environmental threat—either through additional scientific studies or strict regulatory practices—only then will Marylanders perhaps be more open to arguments concerning its economic benefit.

Mileah Kromer, Ph.D., is Director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center and Assistant Professor of Political Science at Goucher College.

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