Fracking opinions at tipping point

President Obama’s appointment of Ernest MonizErnest MonizThe Trail 2016: Donald and the Supremes Overnight Energy: EPA wants higher ethanol mandate Moniz dismisses Trump’s call to change climate deal MORE, an MIT scientist, to head the Department of Energy is stirring up the hornet’s nest known as fracking again. Moniz’s supposed enthusiasm for the natural-gas boom and the practice of hydraulic fracturing — fracking, for short — that fuels gas production is scaring the greenies. Ponder these widely circulating blogger quotes: “fracking is madness, a sign of a society gone completely insane and bent on self-destruction,” and “the more we learn about a gas-drilling practice called hydraulic fracturing — or ‘fracking’ — the more we see it as a zenith of violence and disconnect.” The incoming secretary, a physicist by training and vocation, might need a short course in social science and polling to manage the firestorm of controversy he is certain to face over the next year.

Where do we stand today, at the start of Moniz’s tenure? A March poll, taken by the Pew Research Center, shows a plurality of American adults nationwide favoring fracking. Pew’s question wording, not a particularly flattering setup for hydraulic fracking, asked: “Do you favor or oppose increased use of fracking, a drilling method that uses high-pressure water and chemicals to extract oil and natural gas from underground rock formations?” Forty-eight percent favors increased use of fracking and 38 percent opposes it. Not surprisingly, a robust 14 percent is on the fence, probably puzzled by an unfamiliar topic. I would venture that even among the 86 percent with an opinion, many could not explain what fracking actually is and therefore would not have a rational reason to favor or oppose it. They just respond to cues like “drilling” or “extract oil and natural gas” or revulse at the ugly “f-ing” sound of the term for hydraulic fracturing.

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From the energy industry’s perspective, as well as my own, this plurality support should be encouraging. But unless public opinion is managed with diligence, this support could wither. And the current level of support, short of a majority, is not necessarily strong enough to create a bandwagon effect that will help nudge those on the fence to come down on fracking’s side. In short, support is fragile and in desperate need of shoring up by energy and fracking advocates.

The key items that should be on the energy industry’s to-do list are filling empty heads, self-policing of bad operators and focusing on state control of regulations on fracking. Currently, few voters know much about the technology that fracking employs. And this is understandable. Despite having commonalities, fracking methods and fluids are varied. The technology is still evolving and adapting as new techniques are developed and applied. The main point that the industry must make about this evolution is that fracking is genuine “high technology,” developed by scientists, not just some homemade invention of roughnecks working on the rigs.

The industry must also grasp that public opinion is not only shaped by knowledge, but also by experience. In parts of the country where fracking is most common today, I sometimes see the strongest opposition. Looking closer at how this opposition evolves, I have witnessed situations where smaller, independent operators are running shoddy drilling and well sites. They might be too close to homes or schools, inadequately screened or emitting unpleasant odors. The neighbors fidget and worry. “What’s going on there?” “Are those toxic odors?” “What’s in that open sludge pit?” The industry needs to support strong state regulatory oversight to prevent these situations, lest they fester, fostering growth in opposition. If responsible major energy producers in the industry don’t work closely with their states to police these rogue operators, everyone will pay the price.

Public opinion on fracking is at a delicate tipping point, and sentiment could tilt toward support or opposition in the year ahead.

David Hill is a pollster that has worked for Republican candidates and causes since 1984.