Fracking fears are appalling

A headline in The Detroit News this week screamed: “Expansion of drilling prompts deep fears.”

The only thing missing was an exclamation point to punctuate the words “deep” and “fears.”

This is what we have become, a cowering, fearful people when it comes to energy technology.

The same nation that sent a man to the moon, cured many diseases known to mankind, unraveled the human genome and pioneered the computer revolution, thinks we cannot drill for natural gas and oil safely and responsibly.

It’s a sorry state of affairs and one of the most appalling failures of public opinion formation in our times.

The energy industry deserves shame for its failure to adequately mold and shape public thinking on this topic.

Yes, a few companies are running ad campaigns that are helpful, but obviously the collective impact is not up to the challenge. There are still “deep fears.”

To the ardent energy haters: Please don’t start down the road of ticking off all the potential dangers illustrated by a few drilling failures of the past.

Every so often, a hot water heater explodes somewhere in a home, creating mayhem. Do we stop allowing hot water heaters? No, we urge better homeowner maintenance.

Tainted Tylenol reaches the shelves of our drug stores. Do we shut down pharmaceutical sales across the board because all those pills and capsules should be suspect? No. We exercise some common sense and get the drug industry and Johnson and Johnson to clean up their act.

But when it comes to oil and gas, we completely freak out.

Today, there are communities where high percentages of voters stand ready to approve wholesale bans on any horizontal drilling or fracking in their communities, or sometimes ask for no drilling at all. Some oppose even the laying of pipelines like the Keystone XL project.

In point of fact, polling on the issue generally is not too bad.

The latest nationwide poll I could find, conducted by Pew Research Center last March, found that only 38 percent of American adults outright oppose fracking.

In the same poll, only 23 percent opposed “building the Keystone XL pipeline that would transport oil from Canada’s oil sands region through the Midwest to refineries in Texas.”

Neither of these opposition numbers reflect “deep fears” that a Michigan news reporter thinks he sees.

But I don’t discredit this journalist’s observation. The fracking issue is one where Americans have a general philosophy that’s tolerant, but shift to paranoid aversion to anything involving oil and gas when it’s in their own back yard.

Most people don’t think about the potentially dangerous hot water heaters hidden away in the attics, basements and closets of their homes until one blows up nearby, and then they start worrying.

The key problem with drilling is that people understand almost nothing about the technology. This lack of knowledge and comprehension fosters fears.

Americans know little about hot water heaters, too, but they are given reassuring information.

The state of Massachusetts publishes something titled, “What you should know to prevent your hot water heater or boiler from exploding.”

It goes on to list six causes for “catastrophic” failures and five easy steps to avoid one. Local drillers need to learn from this, stating the potential problems and practical solutions in clear and concise language.

In my experience, though, some in the energy industry behave like specialist medical doctors that don’t explain things to patients because they assume they’ll never understand it all.

If someone can program a DVR or a smartphone, I think they can potentially understand more about fracking projects than they do today.
Unless and until the industry meets adult Americans where they are, providing factual reassurance, deep fears are unfortunately going to persist.

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