The fracked gas industry, already on the ropes financially, has cratered in the pandemic. At the same time, its public support is tanking. This convergence of trends—financial pressure and public skepticism—could spell trouble for at least two big export-oriented fossil fuel proposals in the Northwest that would use vast quantities of gas: the methanol refinery project in Kalama, Washington, and the Jordan Cove LNG project in Coos Bay, Oregon.
The decade-long fracking boom that unleashed vast quantities of gas is now fizzling out, doused by a sea of red ink. As evidence mounts that fracking is extremely harmful to the environment and risky for public health, the gas industry seems to be losing the contest for public opinion. In an election year no less.
Nationwide in the United States, public opinion has grown skeptical of fracking. Gallup public opinion polling has documented the trend well: in 2015 Americans were evenly split on their support or opposition to fracking. But by 2016 Americans opposed it by an 11-point margin, a figure that widened to 18 points in opposition by 2017. The Pew Research Center documented the same shift in public opinion over the roughly the same period, as fracking fell out of favor.
Just a decade after the fracking boom started with clear majority support, there is little good news to be found in the poll for the gas industry. An August 2019 Associated Press-NORC poll found that only 22 percent of Americans support increasing fracking while 45 percent oppose increasing it. And, a YouGov Blue poll in September 2019 found that registered voters support a ban on fracking by 46 to 33 percent.
Poll numbers like these have already influenced candidates’ positioning in both state primaries and the US general election. Based on horse race polling, there’s no discernible electoral disadvantage for candidates who take a tough stance on fossil fuels, even in swing states—and even in swing states where fossil fuels loom large, like Ohio, the nation’s fifth-biggest gas producer, and Texas, the nation’s leading gas producer.
And no swing state may be more important than Pennsylvania, where the industry cranks out over 6 trillion cubic feet of natural gas annually—a volume that ranks second in the country and ahead of eight OPEC nations. In January 2020, a Franklin and Marshall College poll found that voters in the Keystone State favor a ban on fracking by 48 percent to 39 percent.
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In fairness, the same poll showed also found that slightly more voters support “shale drilling” than oppose it, although it is important to note that this language is opaque and favorable to the industry and that these results were well within the poll’s 6 percent margin of error. And, a November 2019 poll conducted by the Cook Political Report and the Kaiser Family Foundation showing that a majority of swing voters in Pennsylvania regarded a ban on fracking as a bad idea.
Nonetheless, the 2020 Franklin and Marshall poll is consistent with more than a decade of polling trends in the state, as well as other recent opinion research. In 2011, 66 percent Pennsylvania voters supported “natural gas drilling” compared to just 23 percent who opposed it, support that eroded over time. By 2018, voters were nearly evenly divided on the question with clear majorities saying the environmental risks outweighed the economic benefits and that gas drilling had reduced quality of life.
The 2020 poll held even more bad news for the gas industry. In Pennsylvania:
- Nearly 1 in 3 Republicans support a ban on fracking.
- Independents are evenly split on banning fracking.
- Moderates support a fracking ban 51 to 35.
- Voters under 35 support a ban by nearly 3 to 1.
- Support for a ban is strongest among people with middle and lower incomes.
- Nonwhite voters support a ban by more than 5 to 1.
In many ways, voter attitudes in Pennsylvania reflect those in the neighboring states of New York, which banned fracking in 2015 under the leadership of Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo, and Maryland, which did so under Republican Governor Larry Hogan in 2017. Other states have also permanently or temporarily banned fracking, including Vermont, as well as Oregon and Washington. (Oregon has only modest gas reserves, while Washington has essentially none.) Fracking is also banned in France and Ireland while the UK, Germany, and the Netherlands have temporarily halted drilling.
Mounting evidence shows that public opinion is moving against natural gas and fracking.
Mounting evidence shows that public opinion is moving against natural gas and fracking. The shift in attitudes is probably attributable to a range of factors, including a growing body of evidence that underscores the industry’s legacy of pollution and health impacts, plus a growing realization that it never delivered on promises of jobs and economic prosperity. As the gas industry weathers a storm of bankruptcies, its popularity problem may pose serious obstacles to obtaining the subsidies and regulatory carveouts it needs to continue business as usual. It may also spell trouble for fracked gas expansion proposals in the Northwest, and yet more success for the region’s long-running opposition movement to fossil fuels.
Thanks to Zane Gustafson who supplied research for this article.
Fracking has a proven safety record, has reduced carbon emissions by displacing coal, and has saved consumers billions of dollars in heating costs. Despite this, the article shows that relentless negative propaganda can poison public opinion.
Eric de Place
The other thing that poisons public opinion is actually poisoning people. As is well established in both scientific and popular literature — as well as in a wave of new criminal indictments — the fracking industry’s safety record is abysmal. That’s become painfully evident now to people who live in its shadow.
“As evidence mounts that fracking is extremely harmful to the environment and risky for public health…..”
What evidence? This is simply not true. Pathetic, poorly (not at all) researched article. Fact is fracing is safe and has led an energy boom in the US. Who cares about the truth, not you.
Eric de Place
You asked for evidence despite the fact that the article is peppered with supporting links.
If you’d like evidence of environmental impacts, you might start with this series of analyses from Sightline Institute: https://www.sightline.org/2019/02/12/methane-climate-change-co2-on-steroids/. That only touches on the climate impacts, however, and now the array of harms to water and other dimensions of the environment.
If you’d like evidence of the health impacts, you might start with this compendium of the evidence published by Physicians for Social Responsibility:
Polls are not research. Quoting your own website is not research. PSR was founded by Helen Caldicott. Have you ever heard her speak? She’s a fear monger. I don’t find her the least bit convincing.
George Monbiot says we should trust the scientific consensus and avoid listening to conspiracy theorist who cherry pick data. I think he’s right.
What is the scientific consensus around fracking? You may recall Obama’s EPA found no systemic pollution associated with this technology. Sure there’s pollution and environmental damage but you need to view this pollution on balance against the pollution and environmental damage fracking is helping reduce. Like mountain top removal and such. As to other members of the consensus may also recall the IPCC identified coal to gas switching as a viable carbon reduction strategy in the near-term.
On the other side of the aisle you have the conspiracy theorists like Howarth or Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Have you followed what RFK Jr has been up to lately? Look at his instagram posts about Bill Gates. RFK’s own family published an OpEd pleading with him to stop spreading misinformation about vaccines. He claims the mercury in vaccines is causing autism. Did you know that coal has, until recently, been the number one source of annual mercury emissions coming into the environment? How do you square fighting fracking and also being an antivaxxer when the former is responsible for reducing mercury in the environment more than any other technology over the last 10 years?
Do you know that coal fired generation in the US has fallen by about 66% in the last 10 to 15 years. The primary reason this has happened traces directly back to fracking. Coal is about 50 times more polluting than gas. I’m talking about particulate emissions, mercury, SOx, NOx, coal ash, mining impacts, railroad emissions, uranium emissions and so for – coal is the most destructive environmental force on the planet by a wide margin.
You’re fighting the wrong battle. Coal is responsible for around 40% of worldwide CO2 emissions. Particulate emissions from coal are responsible for hundreds of thousands of premature deaths annually. It’s obvious to me coal is the thing we should all be fighting today. Once we get coal out of the way we can go after oil and gas.
Eric de Place
You make a strong case that coal is a terrible polluting fuel. I quite agree and it’s a relief to see it in steep decline.
And, it is also that case that gas is terrible. From a ghg perspective, it’s roughly as bad as coal and in the US now far exceeds coal in climate pollution, even when one does not fully account for the impacts of methane: https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=44837&src=email. Point-source air quality pollution from gas is definitely better than coal, but the pollution from extraction and waste disposal of fracking is staggering. That topic has been explored in depth by any number of peer-reviewed academic and medical journals, many of which are discussed in the PSR report I linked to. You seem confused about what research is, but I would encourage you to examine the detailed explanations and careful citations in both that report and the Sightline examination of methane leakage from the gas industry.
Are any one of those peer-reviewed academic or medical reviews stronger than the IPCC’s reports? None of those papers you’re bringing up won the Nobel Prize… The IPCC did. The Nobel Prize is a big deal. I’ve read the IPCC’s analysis of methane. They’re careful about it but still clearly rule on the side of gas. I’ve never gotten a good explanation of why the IPCC sees Coal to Gas switching as viable but all these other “researchers” seem to make water into whine.
I live next door to a postdoc who studies cancer with his wife. He’s explained to me the hollodized (I love the word hollodized… This word is not mine but I find it inspiring… It’s a pun!) drama circus which is academic research and publishing. He’s Dutch and very plain spoke… There’s a lot of BS out there. I’ve dined with plenty of academics who’ve discussed their research and blah blah blahed about how important they are like I give a flying X at a rolling donut. Dude… I drove a nuclear powered carrier. I sang “Sitting on the Dock of the Day” to Berbers on the Sahara. I don’t give a rat follicle about some outlier paper. I care about the consensus. You’re not in the consensus.
Point source and upstream leakage are two different things. You can very easily support gas and also support emission reduction policies. It’s not like leakage is inevitable? I’ve worked in several power plants. You can literally hear and feel steam leaks and leaks from other types of gases. The satellites we’re deploying can isolate the signature of methane leaks from space. Not just from gas production facilities but from landfills and swamps and such. Let’s go that way instead of throwing the baby out with the bath water.
Hydraulic Fracturing operations have declined not due to environmental issues or the Covid 19 pandemic but because the Saudis decided to crater the oil market to maintain market share and increased production to about 12.5 MMBOD and gave deep discounts to the benchmark prices. The Saudi move drew a similar production increase from Russia and resulted in a price war. Horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing well completions became too expensive to complete in the low oil price environmental. About 25% of the west and south Texas new and existing well bores remain to be completed and this should occur when prices return to about the 55 USD per bbl price range. The price has now recovered to about 40 USD per bbl which allows limited operations to be completed.
In discussion with “environmental experts” I have found that most of these experts are opposed to hydraulic fracturing have little or no actual knowledge on how it’s done. This is not a “new technology” since the first frac job was completed in the late 1940’s in western Kansas as a substitute of placing explosives in well bores for stimulation purposes.
I have completed these type of operations and also acid jobs in wells from West and South Texas to Saudi Arabia and southern Mexico. Never fraced into a fresh water zone, never contaminated a surface water zone or caused any real environmental issues. I have found that most “environmentalist” are oppose to hydrocarbon production in “total” and are using fracing as a straw man argument to ban hydrocarbon production. Anytime you want a real discussion about how fracing is done just ask for me. And I’m old school enough to call it fracing not fracking.
Eric de Place
I agree that fracking is on the decline largely because of its long term financial difficulties. I didn’t say otherwise in the article. Those problems are compounded, however, in the public opinion nosedive, which is based on people’s increased understanding of the risks and impacts of the practice.
I don’t think I said it was a new technology, but the point you’re making isn’t really relevant. As I’m sure you know, the technique was only recently perfected and combined with other technologies like directional drilling, to unleash to massive increase in fracking over the last 10 years in the Permian, Marcellus, Bakken, Montney, and other geologic formations.
I’m glad to hear your fracking operations were not unduly harmful, as far as you know. That is most definitely not the case for many frackers. To cite just one of many examples: https://www.post-gazette.com/news/environment/2020/06/25/Grand-jury-report-Pennsylvania-systemic-failure-regulation-fracking-shale-gas-industry-oil-Josh-Shapiro/stories/202006250132
Ideally, I think, we wouldn’t have fracking – or any kind of oil production, for that matter. At the same time, I’ve learned to be very weary of “poll shows support for XXX widening/narrowing” articles. There’s enough random variation between one poll and the next to make it all too easy to pick individual polls out of context to show a particular trend. I tend to be especially cautious about polls regarding issues (as opposed to candidates), particularly issues such as fracking, which the average member of the public knows little about. The results of such polls have a tendency to be wildly skewed, depending on how the question is asked.
In the absence of more evidence, my default assumption is that little has actually changed since 2015, and that 1-2 polls suggesting otherwise is either random noise, changes in the way the question was asked or the weighting of the sample, and/or cherry-picked polls to convey a particular point.
What I do know is that Colorado voters actually got to vote on a fracking ban in 2018, and it failed. And, even in “deep blue” Washington State, efforts to fight climate changed failed on the ballot, twice. Which is why, when Bernie Sanders promised a complete fracking ban, during the primary season, I thought of Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes going to Donald Trump and got scared at the thought of Sanders being the nominee.
Maybe I’m being too pessimistic. I hope I am. But, I’ve also learned to be a realist. Outside of the Seattle/Portland/California bubble, the “tipping point” voters that actually decide national outcomes are, unfortunately, quite conservative.
Eric de Place
I don’t think you can call this random variation. Both nationally and at a state level, support for fracking has dropped, in some cases precipitously, over the last decade. It’s true in gas-producing regions like Pennsylvania and it’s true in non-gas regions too. (I explore this issue in a little more depth in a related article at the Ohio River Valley Institute: https://ohiorivervalleyinstitute.org/public-opinion-is-moving-against-natural-gas-and-fracking/.)
The Colorado ballot measure outcome was largely the result of the gas industry flooding the election with money. That’s still the industry’s m.o. where they can get away with it.