Poll shows support of natural gas drilling

Shale 'fracking' in state forests, parks opposed

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HARRISBURG -- Most Pennsylvanians support using "fracking" to extract natural gas from the Marcellus Shale, according to a new survey.

Respondents to the Mercyhurst College poll gave a thumbs-up in only slightly smaller numbers than those asked about the issue in other polls.

Those contacted, however, also said they disapprove of gas drilling in state forests and parks and expressed significant concerns about the safety of water resources.

Researchers at the Erie college conducted the public-opinion poll as part of its first statewide survey.

A random sample of 426 residents were interviewed between Sept. 19 and Oct. 7, with a margin of error of 4.75 percent.

Unlike previous opinion surveys on gas drilling by Connecticut-based Quinnipiac University or Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Mercyhurst pollsters decided to include the word "fracking" in many of their questions after a long discussion, said Joseph Morris, director of the school's Center for Applied Politics.

"Most Pennsylvanians know the issue as fracking," said Mr. Morris, adding that his team concluded that the term was not overly loaded for use in the survey.

All respondents were first asked if they have heard about fracking, to which 70 percent replied that they were familiar with the process for breaking apart shale rock with a pressurized concoction of water, sand and chemicals.

Of those, 55 percent said they support using fracking to extract natural gas, with 27 percent opposed and another 9 percent replying that it "depends."

Those figures were closer when residents were asked if they believe the potential benefits of fracking are worth the potential risks to human health and to the environment. They narrowly voiced support, by a 44-40 percent split regarding possible risks to humans and a 46-43 divide on environmental impacts.

That's a slimmer margin than when Quinnipiac University asked voters at the end of last month if the economic benefits of drilling outweigh the environmental concerns.

In that poll, voters also backed drilling activity, 62 percent to 30 percent.

The question of a gas extraction tax received the highest figure of any recent public opinion survey -- 73 percent -- though most of those questioned also said they think the industry will financially help the state's economy and communities even without a tax.

The new survey also showed opposition to drilling in state-owned land: 57 percent said they don't think drilling should occur in state forests, with 35 percent accepting of that practice.

Asked about state parks, 67 percent were opposed.

Asked about whether fracking poses a significant threat to our water resources, 54 percent said yes and 30 percent said no. Two out of three respondents agreed with the suggestion that more state regulations are needed.

"They see the economic benefits of the activity," Mr. Morris said.

"But the jury is still out for Pennsylvanians as far as the cost to the environment, to our water resources and to human health."

Convincing Pennsylvanians not to fear a decades-old process that has come into the spotlight in recent years has been one of the industry's most important jobs, and one they'll continue to tackle, said Matt Pitzarella of Range Resources.

"Accessing the volumes of science on the process can be a tall task. It's literally rocket science," said Mr. Pitzarella. "It's our role to make the science accessible. More and more Pennsylvanians are becoming rocket scientists, or in this case, geoscientists."


Laura Olson: lolson@post-gazette.com or 1-717-787-4254.


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