Appalachian Basin

Bending the Natural Gas Polling Curve Down

A recent story in State Impact focused on the results of one poorly phrased and misleading question out of several in a poll that ended up showing broad public support for natural gas development.  That one question suggested citizens of both Michigan and Pennsylvania desired moratoriums on hydraulic fracturing but other survey results contrasted sharply with this conclusion.  

When polling results don’t fit the template, some media sources try bending the polling curve to suit their storyline.  When the poll itself is also designed to deliver a particular result, we get headlines like this one from State Impact :

“Poll Shows Support for a Drilling Moratorium in Pennsylvania”

The poll in question was one conducted by the National Surveys on Energy and Environment (NSEE), and was entitled Public Opinion on Fracking: Perspectives from Michigan and Pennsylvania.

State Impact’s headline, unfortunately, reflects the answer to a single (poorly phrased) question among a total of more than two dozen – and an equally poor understanding of how phrasing can alter the results.  (More on that later.)

Nonetheless, given the actual results throughout the poll, a far more accurate headline – and one that actually describes the overarching results – would have been:

“Poll Shows Residents Strongly Support Shale Development”

NSEE doesn’t offer a copy of its survey instrument, so we don’t know exactly what prefaced the questions asked in this phone survey. But we do know that the results were, by anyone’s judgment, extremely favorable toward natural gas development.  Consider this finding among Pennsylvania residents, who were asked whether natural gas development “will provide more benefits or problems”:

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Pennsylvania residents, by nearly a two to one ratio, said there were more benefits than problems from the natural gas development they had experienced so far.  The results were nearly identical for those Michigan residents surveyed, and this is only the beginning of the good news from the poll.

Astoundingly, some 82 percent of Michigan residents said natural gas development was either somewhat important or very important to the overall condition of their state economy.

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As for overall public support, the numbers are again revealing. By a nine point margin, more Pennsylvanians support shale gas than oppose it, and a clear majority of Michiganders supports development.

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The poll also confirmed what so many in the media keep claiming to be an “industry position” is, in reality, the position of the general public. Consider, too, this question:

“When it comes to regulating where drilling sites can be located, which level of government do you think should have the primary control, if any? Do you think the federal government, state government, or local government should have primary control for regulating where drilling sites can be located, or should this decision be made solely by private land owners without any government influence?”

The results, depicted below, indicate that in both Michigan and Pennsylvania, state regulation is preferred over either federal control or “home rule” by local government.

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It’s worth repeating: Pennsylvanians and Michiganders both say they prefer state regulation over any other. Only about a quarter of respondents suggesting local regulation is appropriate.  Michigan residents, in fact, preferred no regulation over local control — perhaps a wise decision given the ludicrous nature of some local regulations adopted in New York.

The reason is simple: States are, unquestionably, the best equipped to regulate oil and gas development. They have the most expertise, the longest history in regulating the industry, and they have proven themselves fit at separating fact from fiction when it comes to issues that arise. You can read more about all of this by clicking here.

Another interesting finding from the survey was that some 26 percent of respondents said any tax revenue from natural gas development should first go to reducing local property taxes.  That’s good news, especially when you consider that Pennsylvania’s Act 13 put over $110 million in the hands of local government last year.

Moratorium?

So, if the survey shows all this support for natural gas development and not so much opposition, how is it that State Impact put out that headline suggesting everyone was ready to halt development and impose a moratorium?  Well, as with any poll, it’s all in the way the questions are phrased.  Here is the question regarding a moratorium:

“Some states have imposed a ‘moratorium’ on hydraulic fracturing until there is a fuller understanding of the possible risks. Do you strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree, or strongly disagree that Michigan/Pennsylvania should establish a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing, or not?”

The wording of the question plants the false idea that there are risks that are not fully understood.  Given six decades of experience and over one million wells hydraulically fractured, this is a little like warning an accountant of the “risks” of working with pencils. It also violates a best practice of survey methodology; namely, avoiding “loaded, leading, emotional, or evocative language as it can bias responses.”

The poll includes no mention of how many times hydraulic fracturing has been used, and certainly no discussion of what a moratorium would actually do. Do the respondents realize that shale development, which they strongly support, could be entirely undermined by imposing a moratorium? Were they informed about how investment decisions in oil and gas are complex, and cannot – indeed will not – be made amidst constant whims and vacillations of lawmakers? Was it explained to the respondents that a “temporary pause” on drilling would destroy jobs and drive out investment?

It appears the ones in charge of formulating these questions believe shale development can be turned on and off like a light switch. One has to wonder if they think electricity is produced in the same manner.

Incredibly, the pollster, Barry Rabe, had this to say about the moratorium question:

“A moratorium is not a ban… A moratorium is taking some time out and taking some time to develop a policy and process as opposed to completely prohibiting. So if there is a mixture of possible benefits and risks, support for a moratorium might be viewed as a way to view all those risks and minimize them before going forward.”

Promoting the thought that a moratorium is anything but a prohibition is as intellectually dishonest as it gets.  A moratorium would be an industry shutdown, period. The industry must continually develop wells to meet production commitments, as well as to adhere to contracts with property owners. Halting production and blocking the development of new wells, even for a short period, means that the very shale development that the respondents overwhelmingly support would actually be completely hamstrung.

Nonetheless, the poll still shows significant support for natural gas development and hydraulic fracturing. Despite years of fear mongering and promoting false talking points in the media, people realize that shale development is spurring enormous economic activity, and they understand the benefits far exceed risks. The fact that “support” for a moratorium required a misleading question intended to pull respondents in one direction is also indicative in its own right, though we wish those who reported on the poll would have given their readers the full story.

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