New research shows that American attitudes toward fracking are becoming more negative, but they are crystallizing and becoming more entrenched. While this may be a problem in many communities, it creates opportunity for us along the Beartooth Front.
New research on fracking
A recent Pew Research Center Poll shows that support for increased use of fracking to extract oil and gas has declined steadily over the last 18 months.
We posted on this last January, saying that “American attitudes about fracking are just forming, but we’re deeply divided.” Nearly a year later, the topic is not so new, and attitudes are becoming more crystallized.
Overall, 41% of Americans favor increased use of fracking, down from 48% in March, 2013, and 47% oppose, up from 38% 18 months ago. That’s a 16% swing in attitudes.
According to the Pew study, opposition to increased fracking has grown among a number of demographic groups. Women now oppose the increased use of fracking by a wide margin (54% to 31%), a negative swing of 22% in 18 months. Support for increased fracking has fallen 10 points among younger adults (those under 50) since then, from 48% to 38%, while holding steady among older Americans (currently 45%).
There has been a particularly dramatic change in views of fracking among those in the Midwest. In March 2013, 55% of Midwesterners favored expanded fracking while 32% were opposed. Today, 47% oppose more fracking while 39% support it. This is not surprising, given that fracking has become a highly contentious political issue in states like Ohio, Illinois and Michigan. In the West, there has been a 15% negative swing over the time period studied, with 54% now opposed to increased fracking.
The partisan gap over increased fracking remains substantial: 62% of Republicans back the increased use of this process compared with 29% of Democrats. Independents now oppose expanded fracking, 53% to 37%, a complete reversal of their attitudes a year and a half ago. Among Republicans, conservatives have stayed steady in their support for fracking, while more moderate Republicans, while still favoring fracking, have moved swung about 10% in a negative direction.
But public opinion needs to be measured not only by the changes on the favor/oppose scale, but by how strongly people hold their opinions.
New research shows that this division is becoming deeper, and is unlikely to lead to easy compromise or resolution. In a new study recently published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, Kaitlin Toner Raimi of Vanderbilt University and Mark Leary of Duke show that on both sides of the fracking debate, those with stronger views, whether in favor or opposed to fracking, have a higher level of “belief superiority,” meaning that they think their views are more “correct” than the views held by other people.
What the study found was that, when people were shown an article, whether for or against fracking, they were polarized by reading the article. Their “belief superiority,” no matter what side of the issue they were on, they became even more certain of their views.
For people who were less certain of their views, it had the opposite effect:
“It’s kind of classic motivated reasoning,” says Raimi. “People are finding information about the articles to agree with them — what’s new about this is that we’re seeing the people who are feeling superior are more likely to do that.”
It also means that, for people who are just forming an opinion, it is important for us to provide information about issues related to oil and gas drilling to help them understand the risks inherent in the process.
The lesson for us on the Beartooth Front
There’s a clear lesson for those of us working to develop a strong community solution to the issue of how or where fracking should take place along the Beartooth Front:
We can’t make the fight about pro-fracking or anti-fracking. People who have strong opinions on either side of the debate are not going to be moved.
Anyone who is familiar with the voting patterns of Carbon and Stillwater Counties 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, and that Carbon and Stillwater Counties are conservative, even moreso than the rest of the state. The first clear lesson should be obvious. To the extent that the community discussion becomes a fight pitting pro-fracking vs. anti-fracking, the anti-fracking side will lose.
This understanding is central to the approach local grassroots groups have taken. Unlike groups in Colorado, Ohio, Texas, New York and California, there is no organized anti-fracking group in Carbon or Stillwater County.
Instead, the approach has been to develop a solution that is fair to mineral rights holders, but also to local residents and land owners who want to make sure their water is not contaminated, their property rights are preserved, and their livelihoods remain intact.
Citizen initiated zoning
This led local groups to citizen initiated zoning, set forth in Montana law in MCA 76-2-101, which enables local governments to set the terms on which oil and gas drilling can be done on their properties. Here’s how it works:
- Any interested group of citizens in a county can create a zone. It is a democratic process. If 60% of the residents in an area want to create the zone, it can be brought forward to the County Commission.
- The rules of the zone must be drafted to be consistent with the county growth plan.
- A zone map must be created to reflect the properties to be included in the zone and define the perimeter of the zone
- Each landowner who supports the district needs to sign a petition. The signature must match exactly the name on the title of the land.
- When more than 60% of the landowners in the district have signed the petition, it can be brought to the County Commission.
- After the County Commission receives the petitions, it holds a public meeting to determine whether the zone is in the “public interest and convenience.” If so, the district is established.
- If the zone is established it is referred to a county planning and zoning commission. This is a seven member oversight board that reviews the zoning petition and recommends how it should be implemented.
- After opportunities for public input, the planning and zoning commission puts in place the regulations for the district.
- The planning and zoning commission is responsible for the ongoing administration of the district.
This is a fair and balanced approach to compromise between competing interests in a community. Rather than pit one group against another, it is a way for local governments and communities to look beyond one group claiming “belief superiority” over another, or pitting today’s economic needs against the long-term future of a community.