Survey: Support for Fracking is Highest in Communities Where It Occurs

One thing is clear from a recent June 2014 public policy survey of local officials by the University of Michigan’s Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy (CLOSUP).  In northern Michigan, where hydraulic fracturing is actually occurring, residents overwhelmingly support oil and gas development. As the survey notes:

“There are significant regional differences in opinions on fracking. Local leaders’ support is highest in the Upper Peninsula (54% support, 32% oppose) and Northern Lower Peninsula (37% support, 35% oppose), and lowest in SoutheastMichigan (19% support, 51% oppose).”

A story in the Michigan Daily about the survey also observed:

“[T]he data also pointed to some regional disparities on the issue, with greater support for fracking in northern regions of the Lower Peninsula where the practice is more commonly implemented.”

However, as that article points out, public opinion of fracking is still developing in many parts of the state:

“The study also showed public perception of fracking may not be very clearly defined.”

This becomes even more clear when we see that 33 percent of the respondents indicated they “don’t know” whether their constituents would support or oppose hydraulic fracturing.  Another 18 percent believe their constituents “neither support nor oppose” fracking. Yet, one of the conclusions is that only 11 percent of respondents said their constituents support fracking.

With this kind of uncertainty, it’s worth a closer look at the survey itself.

According to CLOSUP’s report on the survey, of the 1,856 local government jurisdictions in Michigan, 1,353 actually submitted a response.  The survey covered various topics, but questions 16 through 24 specifically addressed hydraulic fracturing.  However, of those that responded, eight percent were completely unfamiliar with fracking.  Those individuals were then instructed to skip the remaining questions on the subject.

By skipping questions regarding oil and gas development, the respondents’ opinions and those of their constituents were completely excluded from the survey.  This fact seems somewhat odd if you are purporting to survey local jurisdictions throughout Michigan.  One can assume, however, that those conducting the survey would argue that respondents who are unfamiliar with the process would not yield fruitful data, although that is certainly debatable in terms of understanding public opinion.

What’s more troubling, is in question 19, when respondents who are familiar with the process – but who also indicated that fracking is not an issue – are then instructed to skip the remaining questions regarding their opinions on fracking.

This is especially concerning given that 61 percent of the respondents to that question indicated that fracking is not an issue or a subject of discussion. This comes despite relentless efforts by “ban fracking” activists to claim that shale development is an inherent threat to every Michigander’s way of life, and that it will result in environmental ruin. The fact that so many declared fracking not to be a serious issue suggests that activists, like Ban Michigan Fracking, have failed to convince the state’s local officials that their arguments are credible.  Maybe this is also a reason why Ban Michigan Fracking was unable to get enough signatures from voters to support a ban on fracking.

Nonetheless, with so many respondents being excluded, one has to ask: what value do the remaining responses have in determining local officials’ true opinions about oil and gas development? Further, it is no wonder why the survey found only 11 percent of the respondents’ constituents would support fracking.

These findings also run contrary to previous polling that showed strong support for hydraulic fracturing in the state.  Specifically, according to the 2013 University of Michigan Public Perception Technical Report, 52 percent of those surveyed in Michigan indicated that “the benefits of hydraulic fracturing outweighed the risks.”

So while only 11 percent of the local officials surveyed may think their constituents are in favor of fracking, in reality, support of oil and gas development is much higher.

Comments

  1. Dear Mr. Simaz,

    As one of the authors of the report you cite here, I write in response to your blog entry.

    (1) You wrote: “In Northern Michigan, where hydraulic fracturing is actually occurring, residents overwhelmingly support oil and gas development.” That is not a valid conclusion based on our report. Our survey found that 18% of responding local government leaders in the Northern Lower Peninsula region estimate a majority of their citizens would support fracking in their communities, but 41% estimate a majority of their citizens would oppose fracking in their communities. This information was not included in the report, but is available in the data tables we place on our website (http://closup.umich.edu/michigan-public-policy-survey/fall-2013-data/q20b.php).

    However, our survey did find – some (mixed) evidence that support for fracking among local leaders may be higher in some jurisdictions where fracking is happening compared to in jurisdictions where there is no fracking anywhere near by. Our survey also found some evidence for just the opposite conclusion. This information was included in the report.

    (2) Our survey of Michigan local government leaders asked local officials how familiar they are with hydraulic fracturing/fracking. Eight percent of local leaders said they were completely unfamiliar – they had never heard of it before. We instructed those officials to skip the rest of the questions regarding fracking.

    You wrote that it seems somewhat odd that we skipped them out of the rest of the questions on fracking. I don’t understand why you think we should ask these officials any of the following questions (such as whether there is fracking in their communities, whether fracking is a topic of local discussion, who supports/opposes fracking in their communities, etc.)? If these officials have never heard of fracking before, then they should not have any further information about it. It would be a poor survey practice to ask a respondent if “Activity A” is happening in her community if she just told you she has never heard of “Activity A.”

    (3) Our survey asked local government leaders “to what extent, if at all, would you say current or potential fracking within your jurisdiction is a topic of discussion, either in the community at large or within your jurisdiction’s government?” Sixty-one percent of responding local officials answered “Not an issue AT ALL, there has not been ANY discussion of fracking within my jurisdiction now or in the recent past.” We then skipped these 61% of officials out of followup questions about fracking in their jurisdictions, regarding issues such as sources of support and opposition to fracking, whether the jurisdiction has taken any policy actions on fracking, and what kinds of factors in the community are encouraging or discouraging fracking.”

    You wrote that it is troubling that we skipped these officials out of the following questions. But again, from a survey design perspective, it would make no sense for us to ask local officials whether the citizens in their community support or oppose fracking if the official tells us that there has be absolutely no discussion of fracking in the community. How could the official know her citizens’ views on fracking if the issue has not been discussed in any way in the community?

    (4) Finally, you wrote that our findings run contrary to previous polling that show strong support for fracking in Michigan, noting that 52% of Michigan citizens indicated that “the benefits of hydraulic fracturing outweigh the risks.” As it turns out, this survey was also conducted by our organization. What your blog entry failed to also report was that 52% of Michigan citizens also believe there should be a moratorium on fracking until more is known about the risks.

    We took great care to design a survey that was unbiased, and then to report out the data, whatever they said. That is why our report found some evidence of both relatively low levels of support for fracking in people’s own communities, but also some interesting evidence (though mixed) that support for fracking may actually be higher in some communities where fracking is happening, compared to places where it is not happening.

    • Thanks for your comments, Tom.

      We acknowledge that in the “Northern Lower Peninsula,” where fracking is actually occurring, more local officials support it than oppose it. When coupled with the local officials of the “Upper Peninsula,” where it does not yet occur, but which has a long history of responsible development of natural resources, 54 percent of local officials support the process. These officials represented the only individuals actually asked directly by the poll about their opinions of fracking, and they are residents of those regions. Thus, our statement that the poll shows residents of those areas support the process is indeed accurate. What officials may think other residents’ opinions are of the process is not a poll of the actual opinions; it’s merely a supposition about others’ thoughts. That’s not a poll, and it’s certainly not scientific.

      To be clear, the point we were trying to make is that the highest support for fracking is in those communities that know first-hand the benefits of safely developing our state’s natural resources. This is in contrast to those areas, such as southeast Michigan, where little development occurs and yet seemingly has the highest percentage of opposition. We felt it was important to explain this, as much of the conversation over “local control” and “local bans” in Michigan presumes that local citizens are leading the fight against fracking. As we’ve seen in states such as Colorado and Illinois, however, national activist groups often end up driving those conversations and skewing the public’s perception about what the residents actually think. This is also, coincidentally, why it would be troublesome to suggest residents oppose fracking based entirely on what a local official *thinks* those residents believe.

      As for the exclusion of eight percent of those local officials who indicated that they had never heard of the process: If the point of the survey was to get the opinions of local officials throughout Michigan, shouldn’t the survey have had at least one question, for those excluded, that had a brief explanation of the process with both pros and cons, and then asked their opinion? We certainly can see the merits of the polling strategy you detailed, but we disagree that those officials should have been excluded entirely, instead of given the opportunity to weigh in on the subject, even if those answers would be limited by a lack of familiarity. We are cognizant, of course, that limited resources prevent unlimited questioning, though.

      Regarding the exclusion of an additional 61% of those surveyed about their opinions, this is difficult to justify on the basis that it was not an issue or recent topic of discussion. Specifically, the 61% of locals officials excluded from the survey indicated that fracking was:

      “Not an issue at all, there has not been any discussion of fracking within my jurisdiction now or in the recent past.”

      To justify your position to exclude such a large portion of the respondents, you asked:

      “How could the official know her citizens’ views on fracking if the issue has not been discussed in any way in the community?”

      One could easily counter that it’s difficult for any local official to “know” his or her constituents’ views on fracking, whether it has been discussed a great deal or not at all. Unless that official has taken polls, it’s all speculation anyway. Furthermore, as mentioned earlier, this survey was centered on the opinions of local officials and not necessarily the opinion of the community. We can leave it to others to debate the usefulness of asking local officials to hypothesize what their constituents believe about a technical process that is often clouded by misinformation. However, to somehow exclude the vast majority of respondents to a survey because the topic in question isn’t an issue or hasn’t recently been discussed seems to undermine the whole purpose of the survey. Was this survey supposed to tell us something about the opinions of local officials regarding fracking, or only those local officials who were actively discussing it in their communities? If the latter, then the report on the survey failed to make this distinction.

      To highlight this problem in an example: If a measure were put to voters on whether fracking should be banned, would only those who profess a knowledge of the process be allowed to weigh in? Polls are intended to gauge the pulse of the public, and in this case (fracking), there are clearly implications for the state’s discussion over regulation and even local bans and moratoria. Excluding the opinions of large swaths of respondents thus provides significant limitations to the utility of the poll’s results. That’s not to say the poll is entirely without utility or merit, but we see this exclusion as a significant weakness.

      Lastly, on the subject of Michiganders supporting development as well as a moratorium: This highlights several key issues. First, it does not appear that the individuals in the 2013 poll who said they had never heard of fracking were excluded from opining about whether the state needs a moratorium until further study. Based upon your justification of excluded large swaths of respondents in this latest poll, based on a lack of knowledge, that’s certainly an interesting dynamic. Second, the 2013 survey indicated that natural gas development is “somewhat to very important” to Michigan’s economy, and shale gas development specifically enjoyed high levels of support among Republicans, Democrats, and Independents. These would appear to contradict the moratorium position. Were respondents told that supporting a moratorium would mean importing more gas from other states? Energy choices cannot be made in a vacuum, and most of the public understands trade offs. In the end, residents of this state want to know that the process can be done in a safe and environmentally sound way. The fact that this process has been occurring safely for 60 years may explain such strong support, and correspondingly why groups such as Ban Michigan Fracking have been unable to achieve public support.

      To be clear, we found value in your poll, and the results are interesting. No poll or survey is perfect, either. But we felt it necessary to explore some of the findings and shortcomings in more detail, given how they mesh with or could potentially influence other aspects about the “fracking debate” currently occurring in Michigan.

      • Dear Mr. Simaz,

        I am afraid that your group may be having difficulty interpreting our survey and results. We would be happy to run customized tables for you if that would be useful. I will respond to your latest comments here.

        (1) You wrote: “We acknowledge that in the “Northern Lower Peninsula,” where fracking is actually occurring, more local officials support it than oppose it. When coupled with the local officials of the “Upper Peninsula,” where it does not yet occur, but which has a long history of responsible development of natural resources, 54 percent of local officials support the process.”

        My response: This is incorrect. We could run a customized table for you in order to get the percentage that you are trying to estimate here. Since the percentage of local officials who would support fracking in their communities in the U.P. is 54%, and the corresponding percentage in the Northern Lower Peninsula is less than that, then combining the two groups and calculating their combined percentage would have to be less than 54%.

        (2) You wrote: “…. These officials represented the only individuals actually asked directly by the poll about their opinions of fracking, and they are residents of those regions. Thus, our statement that the poll shows residents of those areas support the process is indeed accurate.”

        My response: This would be a valid statement if you said “the poll shows residents of those areas who are the chief elected and appointed officials of their own local governments support the process.” But your statement that “residents of those areas support the process” implies that it is referencing “all” residents of those areas, and that is not valid based on our data. These data only represent the chief elected and appointed local government leaders, not the citizens, and no credible survey research organization would state that these data are representative of all citizens’ opinions.

        (3) You wrote: “…. What officials may think other residents’ opinions are of the process is not a poll of the actual opinions; it’s merely a supposition about others’ thoughts. That’s not a poll, and it’s certainly not scientific.”

        My response: You are correct that our survey is not a poll of public opinion, but we are very clear about that ourselves. To avoid repetition and improve readability in long reports, we may have a sentence here or there that, if taken out of context, might not be perfectly precise, but our reports are clear that this is a survey only of local government leaders, not of the general public. Still, we routinely treat these local leaders as sources of intelligence about issues playing out in their communities, and ask them what they perceive to be sources of support and opposition to various policy issues in their communities. This is useful in understanding how local government leaders view the community and local political context of policy issues they deal with.
        In this case, our fracking report included this statement: “Overall, where fracking is an active topic of discussion, local leaders believe their citizens are more likely to oppose (37%) than support (11%) fracking in their jurisdictions.” Note that we did not say that citizens are more likely to oppose than support fracking; instead, we said local leaders BELIEVE their citizens are more likely to oppose than support fracking.

        (4) You wrote: “As for the exclusion of eight percent of those local officials who indicated that they had never heard of the process: If the point of the survey was to get the opinions of local officials throughout Michigan, shouldn’t the survey have had at least one question, for those excluded, that had a brief explanation of the process with both pros and cons, and then asked their opinion? We certainly can see the merits of the polling strategy you detailed, but we disagree that those officials should have been excluded entirely, instead of given the opportunity to weigh in on the subject, even if those answers would be limited by a lack of familiarity. We are cognizant, of course, that limited resources prevent unlimited questioning, though.”

        My response: It is indeed the case that we cannot have unlimited questions on our surveys. In fact we are quite constrained in how many questions we can carry on any individual survey, since our respondents are very busy local officials who get numerous requests to participate in surveys from many different organizations. We try to limit our surveys so the average respondent spends no more than 20 minutes taking the survey. To meet this goal we routinely have to cut many questions from our draft questionnaires before coming up with a final survey design. In an ideal world, I can see the value of the approach you describe, but we were also trading carrying questions on this survey related to wind power, the Great Lakes, and issues of local government bankruptcies, and we had to cut questions from each of these topics as well.

        Nonetheless, regarding the 61% of officials that we skipped out of the rest of the fracking questions because they told us there was no fracking anywhere nearby and that it was not a topic of discussion at all in their communities: If we had asked these officials for their levels of support or opposition to fracking in their communities, I would assume a majority of them would oppose such fracking, based on the data we did gather from other local leaders who – like the “61%” – do not currently have fracking in their communities.

        (5) Continuing on the issue that we skipped these 61% of officials out of subsequent questions on fracking, you wrote: “… However, to somehow exclude the vast majority of respondents to a survey because the topic in question isn’t an issue or hasn’t recently been discussed seems to undermine the whole purpose of the survey. Was this survey supposed to tell us something about the opinions of local officials regarding fracking, or only those local officials who were actively discussing it in their communities? If the latter, then the report on the survey failed to make this distinction.”

        My response: I disagree that this undermines the purpose of the survey, and that our report failed to make the distinction clear. First, the overall purpose of the fracking portion of this survey was to utilize informed local leaders to help us understand how fracking is playing out as an issue in Michigan communities: where is it an issue vs. not; what levels of government (federal, state, local) do local leaders think should have authority to regulate it; and, where it is an issue: (a) what do local leaders believe are the local sources of support or opposition; (b) what kinds of factors are encouraging vs. discouraging its adoption; (c) and what kinds of policy action, if any, have local governments taken regarding fracking. So it would not make sense for us to ask local leaders those last sets of questions (a-c) if they told us there is no fracking in their communities and there has not been ANY level of discussion about it.

        Second, as to whether or not our report failed to make these distinctions clear, I believe our report is indeed quite clear about these issues. We repeatedly (to the point of redundancy) state things like “In places where fracking is a topic of discussion” and “among jurisdictions where fracking is an active issue.” Again, it is possible we may have a stray sentence here or there that isn’t perfectly precise, but that should only be an issue if taken out of context. We try hard to make our reports both accurate and readable, and so if a paragraph or section of the report makes clear which set of respondents/jurisdictions are being described, we may not repeat the qualifier on every single sentence.

        (6) You wrote: “One could easily counter that it’s difficult for any local official to “know” his or her constituents’ views on fracking, whether it has been discussed a great deal or not at all. Unless that official has taken polls, it’s all speculation anyway. Furthermore, as mentioned earlier, this survey was centered on the opinions of local officials and not necessarily the opinion of the community. We can leave it to others to debate the usefulness of asking local officials to hypothesize what their constituents believe about a technical process that is often clouded by misinformation.”

        My response: First, you may be correct that it may be difficult for local officials to “know” his or her constituents’ views on fracking. However, as stated above, we are clear that our surveys are of local leaders, and that our reports are of the opinions and information provided by local leaders, not the general public. Second, it is of course up to you whether or not you find value in understanding what local leaders perceive to be sources of support and opposition to fracking in their communities (or any other policy issue we study), but we think it is valuable and important to understand their views. Local governments don’t operate in a vacuum, of course, they operate in highly politicized and complex contexts. We think it is important to understand these dynamics, and we attempt to do that in part by surveying the local leaders.

        (7) You wrote: “…. Polls are intended to gauge the pulse of the public, and in this case (fracking), there are clearly implications for the state’s discussion over regulation and even local bans and moratoria. Excluding the opinions of large swaths of respondents thus provides significant limitations to the utility of the poll’s results.”

        My response: again, our survey is not a survey of the general public as described above, and excluding those officials where fracking is a non-issue, from further questions about how it IS a local issue, was an appropriate survey design for our goals.

        (8) You wrote: “Lastly, on the subject of Michiganders supporting development as well as a moratorium: This highlights several key issues. First, it does not appear that the individuals in the 2013 poll who said they had never heard of fracking were excluded from opining about whether the state needs a moratorium until further study. Based upon your justification of excluded large swaths of respondents in this latest poll, based on a lack of knowledge, that’s certainly an interesting dynamic.”

        My response: You are mixing up two separate polls and so this concern does not make sense. These were two separate polls with different goals and methodologies. One poll – the fall 2013 Michigan Public Policy Survey – was of local government leaders (this has been the subject of most of this blog discussion). That report is available here: http://closup.umich.edu/michigan-public-policy-survey/33/fracking-as-a-community-issue-in-michigan/
        The other poll was in fact a survey of Michigan citizens (not local government leaders), and was conducted in fall 2012 as part of the National Surveys on Energy and Environment (by our organization at U-M, in partnership with Muhlenberg College). That report is available here: http://closup.umich.edu/issues-in-energy-and-environmental-policy/3/public-opinion-on-fracking-perspectives-from-michigan-and-pennsylvania/

        (9) Continuing on this issue, you wrote: “Second, the 2013 survey indicated that natural gas development is “somewhat to very important” to Michigan’s economy, and shale gas development specifically enjoyed high levels of support among Republicans, Democrats, and Independents. These would appear to contradict the moratorium position. Were respondents told that supporting a moratorium would mean importing more gas from other states?”

        My response: First, just for clarification, I believe you are referring to the 2012 NSEE survey here, not the 2013 MPPS survey. Beyond that, respondents were not told that a moratorium would mean importing more gas from other states, but if their concern is about Michigan’s water resources then they might indeed prefer to have fracking conducted in North Dakota and to purchase their gas in order to protect Michigan’s waters. At any rate, public opinion often includes what may appear to be contradictory or conflicted positions. The NSEE survey did find that Michigan citizens thought fracking had provided more benefits than problems for Michigan, and that it was important to the state’s economy. The survey also found that a majority thought fracking poses a major risk to the state’s water resources, and also that they favored a moratorium on additional fracking until more was known about the risks. In short, this NSEE survey found that Michigan citizens held conflicted and complex views on fracking.

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