Public support has cooled for stricter environmental regulation of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, a drilling method that has lowered U.S. energy prices while raising concerns over its impact on drinking water.
Fifty-six percent of Americans said there needs to be more regulation of the technique, also called fracking, according to a Bloomberg National Poll conducted Sept. 21-24, down from 65 percent in March. The share of respondents calling for less regulation of fracking rose to 29 percent, from 18 percent in March.
Gas prices have dropped 76 percent since July 2008 as producers use fracking, in which chemically treated water and sand are forced underground to break up rock and free gas trapped in tight layers of shale. In his Jan. 24 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama said fracking could support more than 600,000 jobs by the end of the decade.
As more people realize the benefits of gas production “the more public support we’ll continue to see for this truly historic opportunity,” Kathryn Klaber, president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, a Pittsburgh-based industry group, said in an e-mail.
Companies and industry groups, such as America’s Natural Gas Alliance in Washington, have sponsored advertisements that stress measures to protect the environment during drilling.
“The oil and gas industry have been blanketing the airwaves with ads that tout gas as our savior,” Kate Sinding, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council in New York, said in an e-mail. “They’re using Big-Tobacco style smoke and mirrors messaging to deflect genuine concerns about the health threats.”
Supporters of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney reported having greater faith in existing drilling rules, with only 32 percent calling for more regulation compared with 76 percent of Obama supporters. Among those who make less than $50,000 a year, 62 percent favor greater regulation compared to 53 percent of those earning $100,000 or more.
Because of fracking, the U.S. is producing a glut of gas after warning four years ago of a need to boost imports. Owners of liquefied natural gas import terminals have proposed exports, and in April, Cheniere Energy Inc. (LNG:US) won federal approval to build the largest U.S. natural-gas export terminal.
Gas from shale, fine-grained sedimentary rocks that trap the fuel, made up 23 percent of U.S. production in 2010, and is forecast to rise to 49 percent by 2035, according to the Energy Department.
Fracking has been used in places such as Texas and Oklahoma since 1949 and is largely regulated by the states. In Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, drillers are tapping the Marcellus Shale formation, which may be the largest U.S. gas field.
In the northeast, where drilling has boomed in Pennsylvania’s portion of the Marcellus, 69 percent favor more regulation compared with 55 percent in the west.
“Those numbers still show there’s a majority of people who want action, and in fact, I’d argue there seems to be growing concern in the specific communities that are currently being threatened by fracking,” Sinding said.
The boom has also produced failures that have prompted states to review standards. In Pennsylvania, rules were beefed up after regulators found that gas from wells operated by Chesapeake Energy Corp. (CHK:US) had seeped into drinking water supplies in 2010. In his State of the Union address, Obama said his administration would “take every possible action” to see that fracking is done without putting the public’s health or safety at risk.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is studying the potential impacts of fracking on ground water. In April, the agency issued rules that will require gas drillers to capture smog-forming compounds and other substances that are now often released into the air or flared off when a well is first tapped. Weeks later, the Interior Department said drillers won’t be forced to disclose chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing until work is completed.
The Bloomberg poll of 1,007 adults was conducted by Selzer & Co., a Des Moines, Iowa-based firm. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.
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