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Study finds that proximity to fracking sites increases public support of them

People who live closer to fracking sites are more familiar with and more supportive of hydraulic fracturing, while those who live in proximity to areas of higher oil and gas well density are more familiar with but not necessarily more supportive of the practice, a new study from Oregon State University has found.

The rapid rise of unconventional oil and natural gas development (UOGD) through the use of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and directional drilling has transformed the US energy landscape, substantially increasing domestic energy production. Hydraulic fracturing involves the high-pressure injection of fluids to extract oil and gas from shale and other rock formations.

However, the industry also is drawing criticism about the potential environmental, health and social impacts of fracking, creating a sharp divide between supporters and opponents of fracking. The new study, led by Hilary Boudet, an assistant professor of climate change and energy at OSU, explores how proximity to unconventional oil and gas developments influences familiarity with and public support for fracking.

The study was published recently in the journal Risk Analysis. Co-authors are Chad Zanocco, a doctoral student in the School of Public Policy at OSU; Peter Howe of Utah State University; and Christopher Clarke of George Mason University.

The researchers pulled data on wells that began producing between 2005 and 2015 from DrillingInfo, a data and analytics service that provides real-time geo-coded oil and gas well production and completion information. They also used public opinion survey results from nearly 20,000 people who participated in the University of Texas at Austin Energy Poll between 2012 and 2016.

Using geo-spatial mapping, the researchers combined the survey results, which included participants’ zip codes, with the map of oil and gas well locations to determine residents’ proximity to fracking sites.

They used two methods to capture proximity: geographic distance to the most proximate well “as the crow flies” and a measure of the density of wells within a 100-kilometer radius.

We find that both types of proximity to new development are linked to more familiarity with hydraulic fracturing, even after controlling for various individual and contextual factors, but only distance‐based proximity is linked to more support for the practice.

… Our findings shed light on the relationship between proximity and public support for UOGD. Contrary to conventional wisdom and depictions of community opposition in the media, when it comes to energy projects such as fracking, distance-based proximity was associated with support, not contempt—at least in the early stages of development and when examining general trends nationwide. However, this proximity–support relationship did not hold for those located proximate to dense development.

As UOGD becomes part of the established energy landscape in the United States, further research should examine if local support holds as the economic surge associated with drilling and development fades into operations and maintenance. These findings, which are consistent with those of others who have taken a national-level approach to proximity studies highlight the importance of incorporating spatial dynamics into studies of public opinion about energy-related topics.

—Boudet et al.

Resources

  • Boudet, H. S., Zanocco, C. M., Howe, P. D. and Clarke, C. E. (2018), “The Effect of Geographic Proximity to Unconventional Oil and Gas Development on Public Support for Hydraulic Fracturing.” Risk Analysis doi: 10.1111/risa.12989

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