Is Fracking A Purely Partisan Issue? At Least For Landowners, The Answer Is No

Since “fracking” — a drilling technique that extracts fuels from subterranean rocks by injecting liquid at high pressure — took off a decade ago, U.S. natural gas production has hit record levels and oil production has more than doubled. By some estimates, fracking has injected as much as US$3 trillion into the U.S. economy.

But fracking also comes with many environmental dangers that can put peoples’ health at risk. Those concerns are leaving Americans divided about whether it’s good for the country, despite the economic boost. As with other hot-button issues, national opinion polls consistently point to an emphatic partisan conflict.

However, having studied how people make local decisions over the use of natural resources ranging from forests to oil and gas fields, we think that local decisions on fracking might be more complicated than national polls suggest.

This is an important topic to examine because the future of fracking is actually more likely to be decided through family meetings at kitchen tables than through committee hearings in Senate offices. By 2015 only 21% of total oil production and less than 13% of total natural gas production took place on federal lands or through federal offshore leases. Much more oil and gas production takes place on private property. And at least in states east of the Mississippi River, private owners have considerable autonomy to decide when, how, and where fracking can take place. So who are these landowners and how do they make their decisions?

Surveying affected landowners

To learn more about local decision-making on fracking, we surveyed landowners in Eastern Ohio who have signed leases with drillers and asked them to tell us about their experiences.

In a series of articles recently published in academic journals with our fellow scholar Gwen Arnold, we found evidence that landowners take a careful approach to weighing the pros and cons of fracking.

Among the 398 people we surveyed, we found several important patterns. One of the most striking was that a majority of landowners were supportive of fracking, regardless of whether they identified as Democrats, independents, Republicans or something else. Across the political spectrum, landowners who experience fracking tend to support fracking.

But this support is not unconditional. Despite supporting fracking, these landowners also acknowledged the drawbacks. Many of them said they believe the environmental harm it causes is an acceptable, and inevitable, tradeoff for economic opportunity. Although few Republicans take this position, many others believe that fracking has hurt the environment – but they support it anyway.

“It has been an overall benefit to the area economically,” said a man we’ll call ‘James’. “It has been detrimental in the areas of increased road traffic and has had a moderate negative impact on the area’s natural beauty. Overall, the revival of the area far exceeds the bad.”

Notably, landowners do acknowledge the environmental costs, even when they continue to support fracking:

“I know in Ohio a lot of people have benefited financially which has helped the economy, said ‘Maria’, a Republican woman. “That is a positive effect. The negative effect I’m sure is the harvesting of the oil because lands are being disturbed from their natural state.”

“Not In My Back Yard” Or “Go Ahead, Frack Hard”? 

Our data show that in the locality we surveyed, landowners affected by fracking have nuanced views on its pros and cons. Most landowners are supportive, but this is not just because most landowners are Republican. Even Democrats and Independents are supportive. They acknowledge the environmental costs, but they believe the economic good outweighs the environmental bad. this suggests that the future of fracking will be more complicated than a straight partisan debate.

This blog post was co-written by Ben Farrer and Rob Holahan, with some language and framing contributions from Emily Schwartz-Greco

About Ben Farrer

Ben is currently an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Studies at Knox College. He received his PhD in Political Science from Binghamton University in 2014. Ben was previously a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and previously held a research position in the Department of Political Science at Fordham University. His research and teaching interests are centered around parties and interest groups, particularly those from under-represented constituencies. A great deal of his work deals with the political organizations of the environmental movement. He studies both American and Comparative politics.

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