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Tuesday
May132014

So much for that theory . . . (fracking freaks me out  #2)

Huh.

So having been freaked out to discover how pervasively polarized members of the public appear to be about fracking despite knowing nothing about it, I resolved to do a little experiment.

In the previous data collection, I had measured perceptions of fracking risks using the "industrial strength measure," which solicits a rating of how "serious" a societal risk some activity poses to "human health, safety, or prosperity."

My thought was that maybe what had generated such a strong degree of polarization might be the wording of the item, which asked subjects to supply such a rating for "fracking (extraction of natural gas by hydraulic fracturing)."

I figured maybe this language--the sort of "dirty" sounding word "fracking" and the references to "extraction" (sounds like a painful and invasive procedure to subject mother Nature to) &  "natural gas" ("boo" if you have an egalitarian, "game over, capitalists!" sensibility; yay, if you have an individualist, "yes we can, forever & ever & ever!" one) would be sufficient to alert  the ordinary Americans who made up the sample (most of whom likely wouldn't have been able to define fracking without this clue) that this was an "environmental" issue. That would be enough to enable most of them to locate the issue's position on the "cultural theory of risk" map, particularly if they were above-average in science comprehension and thus especially skilled at fitting information to their cultural identities.

So I thought I'd try an experiment.  Administer the same measure but vary the description of the putative risk source: in one condition, it would be called simply "fracking"; in another, it would be referred to as "shale oil gas production"; and in a third, the risk source would be identified as it was in the earlier survey-- "fracking (extraction of natural gas by hydraulic fracturing.)"

I figured that relative to the third group, those in the first (plain old "fracking") would be less polarized, and those in the second ("shale oil gas production"; sounds harmless!) would be the least agitated of all.

Actually, I was modeling this experiment loosely on  Sinaceur, M., Heath, C. & Cole, S. Emotional and deliberative reactions to a public crisis mad cow disease in France, Psychol Sci 16, 247-254 (2005)), a great study in which the investigators showed that lab subjects formed affect- or emotion-pervaded judgments when evaluating risk information relating to "Mad Cow disease" but formed more analytical, calculative ones when the information referred to either "bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE)" or "a variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD)" instead.

Well, here's what I found:

 


Click on the image for a closer inspection, but basically, the difference in effect associated with the variation in wording, while "in the direction" hypothesized, was way too small for anyone to think it was practically meaningful.

Same thing for the influence of the wording on the interaction between political outlooks (measured with a right-left scale) and science comprehension (measured with a cool composite of substantive knowledge & critical reasoning measures; more on that "tomorrow"): 

So much for that theory.

But I have another one!  

All this agitation about fracking, I'm convinced, is really a battle between those who do & those who don't recognize the supreme value of local democratic decisionmaking!

 

 

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Reader Comments (10)

Dan -

You say:

"New York, where anti-fracking forces support stripping localities of "home rule" decisionmaking authority on fracking"


But surely you realize that there are other folks in NY who want to deprive localities of decision-making powers w/r/t fracking?

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/08/30/new-york-local-fracking-bans_n_3842031.html


And consider this:

http://marcellusdrilling.com/2012/01/anti-frackers-in-ny-target-cuomo-with-home-rule-legislation/

That article makes it seem that a more fair characterization is that anti-frackers are supportive of home rule laws. What is the body of evidence for your characterization? What % of anti-frackers want to strip "home rule" authority as compared to the % who are supportive of "home rule" laws?

May 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

@Joshua:

There's a state-wide ban right now in NY. Plenty of communities in the the areas in which the gas deposits are rich want the ban lifted; they say let localities decided. State legislators in liberal areas -- including parts of NYC; no fracking planned there! -- support state-wide ban, which is pushed by environmental advoacy groups.

E.g.,

http://www.buffalonews.com/city-region/environment/a-border-tale-of-boom-and-bust-20140511
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/07/new-york-state-assembly-fracking_n_2826472.html


Some communities have enacted bans too & not surprisingly those are opposed by interests that want to frack.

But if the issue were left to localities -- ones that could decide for selves how to balance economic gains & potential environmental/health costs -- there'd no doubt be a mix. Isn't that what one would expect in diverse (culturally, economically) society if people were given right to decide for self?...

So probably 100% of anti-fracking groups support home rule for localities that are against, & 100% oppose for ones that would allow fracking.

"Local autonomy"/"federalism" is always a fake principal in American politics: same people are for it if they resist federal regulation, and against it if they want to ban something.

May 14, 2014 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Dan -

==> "But if the issue were left to localities -- ones that could decide for selves how to balance economic gains & potential environmental/health costs -- there'd no doubt be a mix. Isn't that what one would expect in diverse (culturally, economically) society if people were given right to decide for self?...."

I think that what one would expect power and decision-making to be balanced among people with different interests, and from different constituencies that would be affected. I live in the watershed for NYC - one would expect that the citizens of NYC would have some measure of input over whether there might be actions that take place here that could contaminate that watershed on a widespread basis. The mechanism for them to have some say in that matter is through the state legislature.

In fact, an area right close to the border of my property was flooded to create a reservoir for NYC's water. This enabled NYC to avoid reliance on water treatment plants. Not a bad idea, IMO. The local municipality, obviously, did not particularly like being obliterated. Should it have not happened? Tough issues, IMO.

The state patrols the reservoirs to make sure that they don't get contaminated. You can't just pull up and unload your boat and go fishing. You can't even fish unless you're using a boat that has been left there and is in compliance with various restrictions. And you can't go boating if you aren't fishing. I'd imagine that any number of local municipalities would like to lift those restrictions so that local residents could just drop in a canoe and go for a spin. Or maybe a motorboat. Does that mean that I'm living in a state where people have no right to decide things for themselves? I don't feel that way, because I don't think that is a binary question with a yes or no answer.


==> "So probably 100% of anti-fracking groups support home rule for localities that are against, & 100% oppose for ones that would allow fracking. "

Maybe, but maybe not. I don't think that you know whether or not that is true. I could imagine that there some who feel that contingent upon appropriate regulation at a state level, it isn't unreasonable for local municipalities to make their own determinations. Not everyone involved in the issue is as polarized in the picture that you paint. Of course there are many who are ideologically fixed, but there are actually people who are primarily concerned with safety and environmental implications of the industry.

Keep in mind, also, that in PA. part of the issue related to local control is not w/r/t whether banning can take place, but whether localities have ANY power to regulate it where it does take place - such as to tax frackers or regulate their activity in some fashion. Personally, I find it amusing that pro-frackers are often "conservatives" who espouse anti-state ideology, like Corbett, but who then want to deprive localities of regulatory power when it runs against the interest of massive campaign donors. No doubt, there are many on the left who espouse anti-state ideology but who then are looking to the state to regulate fracking.

Same ol' same ol.

But again, my objection is to your broad brush. If you have evidence for the widespread applicability of your characterization, go at it. But in lieu of such evidence, I think you should be more qualified.

May 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

@Joshua:

The evidence is the evidence I've supplied in response to your request. I don't know how else to respond. You just say "you don't know, broad brush" etc. Well just show me some counterevidence & I'll adjust. But if this is just a high-school debate thing in which you adopt posture of relentless skepticism, create arbitrary standards of proof, pick at words rather than considering substance of arguments, then I'm not interested.

The water-access issue isn't useful here. You are describing a situation in which resolution of the issue affects multiple parties; so if one cares about local decisionmaking, they all should be included in the "locality" that decides. As you say, hard issue etc.

But very different from influential state legislators from the Bronx & Long Island telling rural communities in Marcellus and Utica that they can't allow extraction in their communities even if they want to.

May 14, 2014 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Dan -

http://insideclimatenews.org/news/20130617/fracking-bill-triggers-rift-among-illinois-green-groups

You did not supply the evidence that I requested - which is that... ""So probably 100% of anti-fracking groups support home rule for localities that are against, & 100% oppose for ones that would allow fracking. "

==> "The water-access issue isn't useful here. You are describing a situation in which resolution of the issue affects multiple parties; so if one cares about local decisionmaking, they all should be included in the "locality" that decides. As you say, hard issue etc."

Huh? NYC residents aren't included in the locality that decides whether industry can engage in activities that might pollute the NYC watershed?

May 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

I would say that the reason whey there is a moratorium in NY and not in PA is less because of which party controls the legislatures and more because the fracking in NY would take place in he NYC watershed and thus, there is a powerful constituency that is part of the larger "locality." It is interesting, though, that even though PA fracking does affect the watershed for areas like Philly, the issue does not generate as much interest in Philly as compared to NYC.

May 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

I think that Dan is on the right track here: ""Local autonomy"/"federalism" is always a fake principal in American politics: same people are for it if they resist federal regulation, and against it if they want to ban something." This can also be seen, for other issues, as to who campaigns for "states rights" or not and when. First, ask, who is in control at the Federal level and the in state. In a different venue, it is bad news for liberally oriented law schools and lawyers that "take it all the way to the Supreme Court" might currently result in a decision written by Scalia.

In the case of fracking, "what works" for your side depends on the political makeup of the locations AND on state mineral rights laws, AND local geology.

If the geology is such that the rock layers are stacked in a neat horizontal, layer cake fashion, and the shale layer to be fracked is quite deep compared to other underground human activities in the area, and surface activities at the well drilling site are tightly controlled, then fracking might proceed without much local impact. That situation is depicted in this graphic produced in association with Penn State University: http://exploreshale.org/. Since I've looked at it last, they've removed the scaling that allowed all of the information to appear on one page, and gone to a system that forces the viewer to scroll and scroll and scroll, apparently to emphasize that distance.

But little of Pennsylvania is actually like this. A satellite view of the state, shows that the geomorphology of the folded rock layers shows up as ridges, where the resistant rocks are and valleys where the rocks are more erodible. This means that a rock layer may be at depth in one area, but near the surface at another. And cut through by rivers and streams. Also there is likely to have been a past history of coal mining and/or oil well drilling that may have provided conduits for fracking pressure driven changes to water wells and such.

For those with some direct interest in the decision making, whether that be a landowner, an activist trying to slow fossil fuel production, or a promoter of fossil fuel energy, how to proceed depends on state rules for mineral rights, and who now controls those rights. A landowner in Pennsyvania with mineral rights, but in an area where other mineral rights owners are likely to sign on to allow drilling might feel as if signing on made sense, even if they individually opposed the idea. This might because many of the surrounding neighbors have already signed on and the risks seem more or less the same with or without the royalty payments. It could be that mineral rights on neighboring properties were severed much earlier to a coal mine operation, the neighbors were inclined to take the money and retire elsewhere or just because the money sounds appealing. Or the geology is such that chance of impacts seem remote. Activists might try to front run the process one valley over by getting landowners stirred up in advance of the oil companies arrival on the scene. Or as with New York, bypass industry oriented local governments and take the issue directly to the state government level.

In western states like Colorado, oil and gas production have long been an entrenched part of the local economy. Mineral rights are generally separate from surface rights. So there is no point in a landowner banding together with the neighbors. They have no power to block mining. The state political system is not going to support a shutdown of the oil and gas industry. But has been supportive of some efforts, such as to disclose fracking fluids. Some municipalities, with no current economic ties to oil and gas have been willing to go out on a legal limb to ban fracking: http://www.denverpost.com/news/ci_25348332/lawsuit-longmont-fracking-ban-given-top-priority. That is still playing its way out in the courts. Further east, in Weld County, oil and gas wells went in before subdivisions were platted. Residents who thought they purchased a home backing to open space wake up one morning to see an oil truck collecting oil from a nondescript looking tank that they hadn't paid much attention to. Or worse yet, a rig is set up to re-frack the well. Should such property owners put up a fight and get in the news or quietly sell and move elsewhere? That is an individual decision.

For the people without direct connections, their knowledge base is probably quite influenced by how the more connected players are presenting their cases at the local level.

May 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterGaythia Weis

Dan -

I notice that you haven't yet let me know how you've adjusted in the face of the evidence I provided you that contradicts your:

--> "So probably 100% of anti-fracking groups support home rule for localities that are against, & 100% oppose for ones that would allow fracking. "

It's interesting that Richard Muller also believes that the developments in Illinois are notable:

http://www.ourenergypolicy.org/can-shale-gas-limit-air-pollution-2/

http://www.dnr.illinois.gov/oilandgas/pages/hydraulicfracturing.aspx

I suppose it might depend on how you define "anti-fracking groups." I would say that the "mainstream environmental groups" referenced in the article I linked might qualify as "anti-fracking," as if they had their druthers, they'd probably prefer there be no fracking at all. On the other hand, I suppose you could argue that it is trivially true that those people who will always be against any fracking under any circumstances will always be against fracking under any circumstances. The relevant question, it seems to me, is how prevalent is that group?

May 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

@Joshua-- Yes, my defnition of groups that are"anti-fracking" groups doesn't include gropus that aren't anti-fracking. I didn't say that "environmentalists are all anti-fracking" or "all environmentalists are against home rule" etc. I was making a point about the groups who oppose fracking -- that they are, like everyone else, only opportunistically committed to values of "local autonomy/democracy" etc.

May 20, 2014 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

So there might be a relatively small group of activists who will always oppose fracking under (pretty much) any circumstances even if it means preventing local municipalities from having any say about what goes on in their own community.

OK. I can accept that. But let's not forget to view that group in the larger context, whereby there are likely many more who oppose fracking more broadly, but who are willing to accept the industry and some measure of home rule laws conditional upon state regulation.

It might be counteproductive if we focus too much on the extremists, as it might cause the general public to view fracxking as more polarized than it actually is - and in doing so, actually increase the degree of polarization and oppositional identification with the polar extremes (due to cultural cognition).

May 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

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