Behind Public Opinion: What Makes Hydraulic Fracturing Controversial

Hydraulic fracturing, otherwise known as ‘fracking’, has been an incredibly controversial method of extracting oil in the United States since its beginnings in the early 2000s. There are hundreds of polls regarding the issue, each one showing a sharp divide between supporters and their opposition. While it is important to understand where the public stands on the issue, it is equally if not more important to understand why individuals formed these opinions. This lacking area of research is important for those working in policymaking or regulation of hydraulic fracturing to shape their arguments in a way that is effective for their desired results.

In “Fracking Controversy and Communication: Using National Survey Data to Understand Public Perceptions of Hydraulic Fracturing,” Boudet et al. attempt to explain the logic behind individual perceptions on hydraulic fracturing. They do so by collecting national survey data from the Climate Change in the American Mind Survey from September 2012 and analyzing questions that speak to specific factors that shape respondents’ perceptions. These factors are socio-demographics, affective imagery, geographic location, worldviews, political ideology, media use, and issue familiarity. They then use a model to find the relative impact of each factor and its ability to predict support or opposition to hydraulic fracturing.

In accordance with the authors’ hypotheses, female gender and Egalitarian worldviews are negative predictors of support for fracturing. The authors also find that age, conservative political ideology, and formal education are all positively associated with support. The positive association between support and formal education is the opposite of what the authors originally predicted. Prior polls show that more formal education is associated with more familiarity with hydraulic fracturing, which they find is negatively associated with support in their own survey. Therefore, these results are somewhat inconsistent with the authors’ hypothesis as well as prior research. While all results reported are significant, Egalitarian worldviews and political ideology are the strongest predictors of public opinion from the socio-demographic, worldview, political ideology, and issue familiarity factors.

The authors find that a respondent mentioning the environmental impact of fracturing is likely to negatively shift support, measured on a 4-point scale, by 0.28. Conversely, a respondent that mentions economic benefits and energy independence is likely to positively shift support on the 4-point scale by 0.098. While these statements reflect previously known reasons for support to and opposition for hydraulic fracturing, the authors cite that affective imagery is one of the strongest indicators of opinions out of all factors studied. The authors also find that frequent TV use is strongly associated with support, whereas frequent newspaper use is strongly associated with opposition. Both of these factors are important in helping policymakers structure their arguments as well as the method of exposure to the public.

While these results are meaningful for public opinion research, they are also incredibly important for policy entrepreneurship. Using this data, individuals working in policymaking or regulation of hydraulic fracturing can shape their argument and portray it in a forum that is effective for their desired results. Most importantly, the public as a whole needs to be more informed about the issue, given that over half of the individuals surveyed had heard nothing at all or only a little about hydraulic fracturing, and more than half were undecided about whether to support or oppose the issue. This causes a minority of individuals that are relatively extreme in their opinions to have a disproportionate impact on policy outcomes. Given that hydraulic fracturing is such a controversial issue, it is important that the public is informed so policymaking reflects the entire constituency and not just a select few that have potentially polarizing opinions.

Feature Photo: cc/(mikesieber68)'
Mattie Prodanovic
Mattie Prodanovic is a staff writer for the Chicago Policy Review and is an MPP student at the Harris School of Public Policy. She is interested in public finance and municipal governments.

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