Quantcast

The Politics of Fracking: Polarization in New York State

Energy

In September, The Earth Institute hosted Tanya Heikkila and Chris Weible of the University of Colorado Denver for a seminar on The Political Landscape of Shale Gas Development and Hydraulic Fracturing in New York. The seminar was attended by students, faculty and staff from across Columbia, and members of the local community. Professors Heikkila and Weible presented the results of their study, funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, looking at fracking perceptions in three study sites: New York, Texas and Colorado. The following is an overview of the results.

Hydraulic fracturing, better known as “fracking,” is the process of injecting high-pressure water, sand and other chemicals into shale rock formations in order to extract oil and gas. Fracking has been around for some time, but only in the past several years has the issue come into the public eye. It’s a highly contentious political issue because of the high volume of water it uses, the types of chemicals used and the unknown health and environmental impacts. In fact in New York, there was a pause on gas drilling permits that utilize fracking. This has become known as the “de facto moratorium,” and has put the state in somewhat of an area of uncertainty. There have been a number of debates at the local level around fracking, the moratorium, and what should be done next.

This Sloan Foundation study focused on providing an impartial lens on the politics of the issue through a series of surveys and interviews with “policy actors.” Policy actors were defined as anyone who regularly seeks to influence the politics on hydraulic fracturing, whether from government, NGOs, industry or academia. For their talk at Columbia, Heikkila and Weible focused on the results from New York State, and presented an overview of the kinds of responses they received from policy actors when asked about fracking and the impact of the moratorium.

Overall, respondents offered a wide range of positions on what they thought New York State government should do—everything from banning the practice to permitting fracking statewide. To simplify the presentation of the results, policy actors were split into two groups based on their position—essentially pro-fracking and anti-fracking groups.

While public opinion is fairly skewed against the fracking process, policy actors in New York State can best be described as polarized. Predictably, the pro-fracking group generally disagrees with environmental groups while the anti-fracking group generally disagrees with the oil industry. Policy actors in New York had stark differences in answers on a wide variety of questions. For example:

  • The anti-fracking group sees water contamination as a major issue, while the pro-fracking group does not.
  • The pro-fracking group strongly agrees that hydrofracking benefits the state economy and climate mitigation, while the anti-fracking group strongly disagrees with this.
  • When asked whether policy actors agree or disagree more today than when they did when they first became involved in the issue, the anti-fracking group states that they agree more today that issues of public health and environmental risk are serious problems. The pro-fracking group, on the other hand, answered that they disagree more today than in the past that those same issues are serious problems. Heikkila and Weible argued that these findings suggest the disagreements between the groups are becoming more polarized.

Researchers also looked specifically at the perceived impact of the “de facto moratorium” in New York State. Here again, their study finds fairly polarized points of view. For instance:

  • Anti-fracking groups perceive a positive impact of the moratorium on environmental quality and public health, while pro-fracking groups perceive no impact.
  • Anti-fracking groups perceive no impact of the moratorium on economic vitality, while pro-fracking groups see a negative impact.

In addition, the comments from the respondents in the study revealed that environmental groups have been more successful than other groups at influencing the public. In addition, people are concerned about the lack of transparency by the Department of Environmental Conservation and the governor’s office. Comments also illustrated that we are seeing an increasing polarization of opinions on these issues:

  • “The drilling industry can be successful with minimal environmental damage provided solid regulations are promulgated and enforced.”
  • “Shale fracturing benefits few, is boom/bust, pollutes the air, water and soil, the industry is irresponsible in terms of human/ environmental safety and health.”

Overall, this study indicates that fracking is controversial because the debate revolves around values. Heikkila and Weible argue that in cases such as these, throwing more technical science at the issue does not necessarily improve the situation or reduce polarization. In the New York State case, the future depends a lot on the status of the moratorium, because, as they note, negotiation won’t happen as long as one side benefits from the status quo. Heikkila and Weible gave some insight into strategies for moving forward, although they admitted that there are no sure-fire solutions for such a contentious topic.

They pointed out the importance of openness and transparency as a way to increase overall awareness about the issues at hand. They warned that once people become invested in a position, it is difficult to change their minds. And as one of their interviewees suggested, one way to prevent this phenomenon from occurring is to “get the public involved in debates earlier in the process, and by incorporating easily understandable scientific information in those early stages."

The Earth Institute is made up of more than 30 research centers and over 850 scientists, postdoctoral fellows, staff, and students. To learn more about the Earth Institute’s education programs such as the MPA in Environmental Science and Policy or the MS in Sustainability Management, click here.

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

How Climate Change Exacerbates the Spread of Disease

Green Infrastructure Minimizes the Impacts of Climate Change

World Trade Center Ship Traced to Colonial-Era Philadelphia

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Natural Resources Defense Council

By Emily Deanne

Shower shoes? Check. Extra-long sheets? Yep. Energy efficiency checklist? No worries — we've got you covered there. If you're one of the nation's 12.1 million full-time undergraduate college students, you no doubt have a lot to keep in mind as you head off to school. If you're reading this, climate change is probably one of them, and with one-third of students choosing to live on campus, dorm life can have a big impact on the health of our planet. In fact, the annual energy use of one typical dormitory room can generate as much greenhouse gas pollution as the tailpipe emissions of a car driven more than 156,000 miles.

Read More Show Less
Kokia drynarioides, commonly known as Hawaiian tree cotton, is a critically endangered species of flowering plant that is endemic to the Big Island of Hawaii. David Eickhoff / Wikipedia

By Lorraine Chow

Kokia drynarioides is a small but significant flowering tree endemic to Hawaii's dry forests. Native Hawaiians used its large, scarlet flowers to make lei. Its sap was used as dye for ropes and nets. Its bark was used medicinally to treat thrush.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Frederick Bass / Getty Images

States that invest heavily in renewable energy will generate billions of dollars in health benefits in the next decade instead of spending billions to take care of people getting sick from air pollution caused by burning fossil fuels, according to a new study from MIT and reported on by The Verge.

Read More Show Less
Aerial view of lava flows from the eruption of volcano Kilauea on Hawaii, May 2018. Frizi / iStock / Getty Images

Hawaii's Kilauea volcano could be gearing up for an eruption after a pond of water was discovered inside its summit crater for the first time in recorded history, according to the AP.

Read More Show Less
A couple works in their organic garden. kupicoo / E+ / Getty Images

By Kristin Ohlson

From where I stand inside the South Dakota cornfield I was visiting with entomologist and former USDA scientist Jonathan Lundgren, all the human-inflicted traumas to Earth seem far away. It isn't just that the corn is as high as an elephant's eye — are people singing that song again? — but that the field burgeons and buzzes and chirps with all sorts of other life, too.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
A competitor in action during the Drambuie World Ice Golf Championships in Uummannaq, Greenland on April 9, 2001. Michael Steele / Allsport / Getty Images

Greenland is open for business, but it's not for sale, Greenland's foreign minister Ane Lone Bagger told Reuters after hearing that President Donald Trump asked his advisers about the feasibility of buying the world's largest island.

Read More Show Less
AFP / Getty Images / S. Platt

Humanity faced its hottest month in at least 140 years in July, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said on Thursday. The finding confirms similar analysis provided by its EU counterparts.

Read More Show Less
Newly established oil palm plantation in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia. Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay

By Hans Nicholas Jong

Indonesia's president has made permanent a temporary moratorium on forest-clearing permits for plantations and logging.

It's a policy the government says has proven effective in curtailing deforestation, but whose apparent gains have been criticized by environmental activists as mere "propaganda."

Read More Show Less