Americans have fractured feelings about today’s boom in natural gas. They want more of it produced here at home, but they’re sharply divided about the chief technology for getting it out of the ground: hydraulic fracturing of subterranean shale. That’s a top trend in the latest University of Texas Energy Poll, released April 9.
The survey of 2,113 adults, taken in March, finds that 62 percent support expanding natural gas development. Just over half of consumers are still not familiar with hydraulic fracturing, commonly called “fracking.” Of those who are, 45 percent support it, while 41 percent oppose it. There’s a similar split over fracking on public lands, with 41 percent wanting to promote the practice and 36 percent to ban it.
Those who know something about fracking want to keep close tabs on the practice. Sixty-six percent favor more government regulation or enforcement of fracking overall, while 60 percent feel the same way about public lands.
“They don’t think it should be banned on public lands, but they want greater oversight,” says David Spence, associate professor of Business, Government and Society at McCombs. “It’s consistent with the position ‘develop but regulate,’ and they feel that way about domestic sources in general.”
The survey is the fourth in a twice-yearly series developed by the McCombs School of Business. Beyond simple pro and con, it portrays a complex public view of U.S. natural gas production – which has surged 23 percent over the past five years – as well as other energy issues:
Familiarity doesn’t breed contentment. The ranks of consumers familiar with hydraulic fracturing have jumped 10 points over the past year, to 42 percent. But within that group, support has slipped 3 points, while opposition has grown 5 points. The Energy Poll has a 3.2 percent margin of error, according to director Sheril Kirshenbaum.
Consumers’ chief anxiety over fracking is its potential environmental impact. Fifty percent express concern, while 21 percent express none. Water contamination is their No. 1 environmental worry, at 40 percent, followed by 18 percent concerned about negative effects from the chemicals used.
Polarized politics. Individuals’ opinions on hydraulic fracturing are likely to reflect their political parties. Seventy-one percent of Republicans support it, while 20 percent oppose. Democrats display a mirror image, with 22 percent for and 60 percent against.
“Energy, like a lot of issues, has become politicized,” says Kirshenbaum. “There’s a strong partisan divide on many different issues, like climate change and natural gas production.”
She notes other demographic gaps in the poll’s results, such as gender. Men are 24 percentage points more likely than women to be familiar with hydraulic fracturing, and among those who are familiar, 14 points more likely to support it.
Spence sees another influence at work: what behavioral economists call confirmation bias. “People lock in on a position, and then they interpret any new news as reinforcing their original positions,” he says. “They frame it in a certain way, and their initial positions are hard to dislodge.”
Keep it at home. With the sudden abundance of natural gas, energy companies are eager to sell more of it overseas, where prices are higher. But consumers are leery, with 39 percent against exports, 28 percent for them, and 33 percent uncertain.
Spence interprets their hesitation as part of a larger concern about energy security, driven by decades of energy crises. “It’s consistent with the notion of being insecure about energy, wanting us to hang on to our own resources,” he says.
The preferred carbon. Natural gas remains more popular than other carbon-based fuels. Its approval rating is 18 points higher than the XL Keystone pipeline for tar sands oil and 22 points higher than expanded drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. Both oil initiatives have slipped 6 points over the past year, while support for natural gas has held steady.
Carbon emissions are a concern for 61 percent of consumers, and majorities see oil (66 percent) and coal (56 percent) as causes of global climate change. Only 39 percent consider natural gas a culprit.
Changes on climate change. More and more consumers are deciding that climate change is primarily human-created. Fully 73 percent of Americans believe climate change is occurring, an 8-point jump over the past year. They see deforestation as the top factor, at 76 percent, followed by emissions from burning oil and coal. Only 43 percent blame natural forces, a 4-point drop from the previous poll.
“Attitudes on climate changes have shifted significantly in just two years since we launched the energy poll,” says Kirshenbaum. “After a record summer of drought across the country and a stormy winter, I think these numbers reflect a sea change in people's attitudes.”
Paying more, consuming less. While other energy issues wax and wane in the minds of consumers, one concern stays constant: its cost. Ninety-six percent of consumers say gasoline prices are high, and 81 percent expect them to go even higher over the next six months. Seventy-one percent expect to spend a larger portion of their household budget on energy over the coming year.
For fans of energy conservation, there’s a silver lining in energy angst: Americans are cutting back. Over two years, 7 percent of those surveyed in the poll have switched to compact cars. The average vehicle is driving 1,885 fewer miles a year.
On the electricity front, 46 percent say a major rate increase might inspire them to use less. Time-of-day pricing, which would raise rates during weekday hours, could prompt 43 percent to shift consumption to off-peak periods, such as nights and weekends.
Cost, says Spence, might be why only 22 percent of Americans think energy issues are headed in the right direction. “The prospect of high gasoline prices may be behind the pessimism,” he says, “though ‘high’ is a relative term: Compare [U.S. prices to those in] Europe. Or maybe it's just a part of how people cope with areas of vulnerability that seem beyond their control — or both.”
Kirshenbaum notes that energy optimism has increased from 18 months ago, when only 14 percent of those surveyed thought the nation was headed in the right direction on energy issues. “Overall, people seem more optimistic about where we're headed,” she says. “But they’re still a small minority of Americans. I think we're hearing more about it in the media, and because of that, we’re seeing greater public interest in some of the hot topics.”