A newly released study on national attitudes toward fracking received a lot of coverage in the press, but newspapers don’t have the space or staff to go very deep into analysis. They reported only the top line information on the results. The Billings Gazette headline was typical: “Study: Few Americans understand fracking.”
But a look below the surface of the study provides excellent guidance for those seeking to shape community action.
American attitudes about fracking are just forming, but we’re deeply divided
The headlines are correct. Most Americans don’t know much about fracking. According to the survey, conducted by researchers at three universities, 55% of Americans say they know little or nothing about fracking, and only 9% say they know a lot. Among those who indicated they knew something about fracking, a majority (59%) indicated they were opposed to fracking, while 42% were in favor.
There are other pieces of information in the study that are worth noting:
- Support for fracking is correlated with age. About 7% of people under 60 strongly
support fracking; more than 15% over 60 strongly support. Conversely, over 20% under 60 somewhat or strongly oppose fracking, while fewer than 15% of those over 60 feel that way.
- People with more formal education are more likely to take a position on fracking, and are more likely to oppose it, although even among respondents with advanced degrees, opinions are relatively evenly divided.
- Importantly and not surprisingly, respondents who identify as liberals oppose fracking 39% – 12%, while conservatives favor fracking 37% – 10%.
- The more people say they know about fracking, the more likely they are to have an opinion about whether it is good or bad. However, knowledge doesn’t drive them to opposition. Even people who say they know a lot about fracking are evenly divided about whether it is a good or bad thing.
- Respondents in the Western US are slightly more opposed to fracking than those in other parts of the country.
- No surprise here — people who oppose fracking are most concerned about environmental impacts; people who favor it cite its economic benefits and the path to energy independence.
What does this tell us about public opinion in Carbon/Stillwater Counties?
The first thing to recognize is that, even if most people don’t know much about fracking, we can look beneath the surface of the data to see what it tells us about our local community. To start with, we are all aware of how divided our country is on key wedge issues. According to a 2013 Pew Research Study, summarized below, environmental issues are the most divisive issues between Republicans and Democrats, with a huge 37% difference in how members of the two parties prioritize them for action along party lines
Anyone who is familiar with the voting patterns of these counties also knows that they consistently vote strongly Republican. In the 2012 Presidential election, Carbon County voted for Romney over Obama 60-36. Stillwater County favored Romney 71-26. Statewide, Romney won 55-42.
So, the data tells us that conservatives strongly favor fracking, that environmental issues are among the most divisive issues in our country today, and that Carbon and Stillwater Counties are conservative, even moreso than the rest of the state. The first clear lesson should be painfully obvious. To the extent that the community discussion becomes a fight pitting pro-fracking vs. anti-fracking, the anti-fracking side will lose.
This shouldn’t be surprising or discouraging to activists who want drilling along the Beartooth Front controlled or eliminated. Montana law is permissive to oil and gas extraction, so a divided community will not be able to stand up to corporate interests.
A second important lesson that the data teaches us is that providing information isn’t a critical factor in determining attitudes about fracking. According to the survey, people who know the most about fracking and people with the most education are still bitterly divided about the benefits or risks of fracking. Activists who believe that all they need to do is provide the facts about fracking to their opponents and poof! — their opinions will change — are missing the point. There are real divisions of thought among informed people about the relative value of economy/energy independence vs. the environment. So the second lesson is that community activism on this issue is not a teaching exercise where one side has the right information and explains it to everybody else.
This brings us to a third critical lesson. The expansion of drilling along the Beartooth is not just an environmental issue. We need to look only at the Bakken and Powder River in Wyoming to see that the expansion of drilling will have a dramatic and far-reaching impact on the community.
- It will affect the long-term viability of Red Lodge, Fishtail, Roscoe and surrounding towns, which will experience a boom when drilling expands, and a bust when the drillers leave.
- It is a property rights issue that will affect farmers, ranchers, and homeowners alike. Few landowners in Carbon and Stillwater Counties own their own mineral rights, and Montana law is permissive about the ability of mineral rights holders to exploit their assets. It is in everyone’s interest to make sure that landowners are protected from predatory land use agreements.
- It is a social issue. In the Bakken we have clear examples of tax increases, inflation, illegal drug use, prostitution, homelessness, inadequate sewage, urban-level traffic jams, health care shortages and more. When you impose heavy industrial use on a rural area, that’s what happens.
- Yes, it is very much an environmental issue. Expanded drilling will affect the viability of our long-term water resources for agriculture, for ranching, and for recreation. It will scar the land. Where will the drillers get the millions of gallons of water they will need for drilling, where will they dump it, and how will we make sure that toxins don’t leak into our ground water? And how will we know what the impact is if we don’t move quickly to establish a baseline for where we are today?
- It affects our local elected officials, who are key to decisions about planning and land use. Whatever happens will happen on their watch, and they will need to be responsive to local interests.
The third lesson then, is that the expansion of drilling will affect everyone, regardless of political inclinations. This should not be a fight at all, but an opportunity to join together as a community to take ownership of our fate, not leave it to corporate interests.
These are lessons that towns in the Bakken, both in North Dakota and Montana, have all learned the hard way, and not a single one of them was prepared for what happened after the drilling rigs showed up.
We can’t predict the future. Drilling expansion may or may not happen. But the worst thing we can is to shut up and let it happen. We have a unique opportunity to benefit from the lessons learned in North Dakota, Wyoming and around the country.
People should fight for what they believe in. But they need to do it in the context of community, not in the service of corporate interests.