Poll says most in Pa. see more pros than cons in shale industry

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In most Pennsylvanians' eyes, the Marcellus Shale is a state resource that should bring much-deserved tax revenue to the region -- despite a governor in Harrisburg too influenced by the industry to properly tax or regulate it, according to a new survey released today.

Drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale has so far yielded more benefits than problems for the state, and the long-term pluses will continue to outweigh environmental minuses, according to research from the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan and the Institute of Public Opinion at Muhlenberg College near Allentown in eastern Pennsylvania.

"Fracking for Natural Gas: Public Opinion on State Policy Options" offers a statewide look at the hope most Pennsylvanians have for the booming natural gas industry, despite an evident cynicism toward the environmentalists, legislators and media tasked with tracking the industry's effects on the commonwealth.

"People are more optimistic about the potential of shale than the way it's necessarily being utilized right now," said Christopher Borick, a co-author at Muhlenberg.

About 41 percent of Pennsylvanians said drilling has yielded more benefits than problems so far, while 33 percent said it posed more problems and 26 percent weighed the pros and cons as equal. When asked to consider the long-term impact, 50 percent said shale gas will provide more benefits than problems, while 32 percent said the reverse.

While Harrisburg lawmakers finalize a shale bill, the researchers found little faith in Gov. Tom Corbett's objectivity. About 60 percent either "strongly agree" or "somewhat agree" that the governor's decisions on gas taxation and regulation are influenced too much by gas companies.

One thing's clear: Pennsylvanians think the shale gas is indeed taxable. About 72 percent said firms extracting natural gas should pay a tax that's allocated at a local level.

The degree of support for taxation follows the "location, location, location" mantra.

Most Pennsylvanians want to see that revenue used for local road and bridge repair, with 70 percent saying that would make them "more likely to support" a gas tax.

That support eroded as researchers pitched more general, statewide uses for the revenue. Only 45 percent of Pennsylvanians were more likely to support a tax if it helped balance the state budget, and 38 percent were more likely if it resulted in a check for every state resident.

The only stance receiving more lopsided support than taxation concerned disclosure in the drilling process. Environmentalist groups have repeatedly raised concerns about drilling's effect on water, and 60 percent in this survey agree to some extent that drilling poses a "major risk" to the state's water resources.

An overwhelming majority of Pennsylvanians said they don't buy an industry argument that the makeup of drilling chemicals is a trade secret that needn't be disclosed. About 91 percent said the public has a right to know the chemicals injected underground during the drilling process.

That call for more industry disclosure fell outside of partisan lines, said Barry Rabe, a co-author at the University of Michigan.

"Compared to other surveys where partisan divides are enormous -- like climate change, for example -- it was a less crucial determinant in this one," he said.

Mr. Corbett was not the only shale player to get a vote of little confidence.

About 48 percent of Pennsylvanians agree to some extent that environmental groups overstate drilling's environmental impact, and about 44 percent said the news media are overblowing them.

"This sends up a sobering set of questions about who -- if anyone -- the public turns to for information and trusts on a topic as complex as this," Mr. Rabe said.

Erich Schwartzel: eschwartzel@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1455.


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