Survey measures residents' attitudes about Marcellus exploration

While energy companies continue to search beneath Pennsylvania for natural gas, social scientists are looking for ways to tap into the attitudes of residents about the gas-exploration boom in the region.

Residents in 21 Pennsylvania counties and eight New York counties -- a region some refer to as "the Marcellus Fairway" -- recently completed a survey looking at their level of satisfaction with their home communities, their knowledge about Marcellus Shale drilling and their trust in the process. The results suggest that, overall, the public-opinion jury is still out, according to Kathy Brasier, assistant professor of rural sociology in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences.

Brasier will be the featured speaker during a free, Web-based seminar titled, "Natural Gas Experiences of Marcellus Residents: Preliminary Results from the Community Satisfaction Survey," which will air at 1 p.m. on Sept. 16. Sponsored by Penn State Cooperative Extension, the "webinar" will provide an overview of the recent survey of residents in counties where shale-gas exploration has begun.

Information about how to register for the webinar is available at http://extension.psu.edu/naturalgas/webinars. Online participants will have the opportunity to ask the speaker questions during the session.

"The main research objective was to establish baseline data so that, as we repeat the survey over the development of the Marcellus, we can track changes in people's experiences and thoughts about the shale," said Brasier. She noted that the main educational objective was to get a better sense of what people living in the region think about Marcellus, to create educational programming that takes into account local views -- whether those are commonly held ideas or points of conflict.

Brasier said, based on the responses of nearly 2,000 participants, the survey revealed that significant proportions of people had yet to form opinions or report knowledge about Marcellus development. However, she said that those who have formed opinions were pretty strong in their feelings, responding in the extreme ends of the attitude items.

When asked about overall support for natural-gas extraction in the Marcellus, about 45 percent support it; 33 percent neither support nor oppose it, and 21 percent oppose Marcellus exploration. She said that there was more opposition among New York respondents, with nearly 31 percent opposing Marcellus gas extraction. In contrast, 19 percent of Pennsylvania respondents oppose drilling in the Marcellus.

Brasier conjectured that one possible reason for greater opposition in New York -- where Marcellus drilling has not been approved -- was the idea that stopping shale-gas extraction is still on the table. "There is still talk that they may be extending the moratorium, and that might be a little bit greater motivation for those who oppose it," she said. "That's not going to happen in Pennsylvania. Here, it's coming, and if people are in the 'opposed' camp, it's more about how to shape it to have the least damage."

Accordingly, the main issues people felt they knew something about were environmental and water impacts. Environmental issues were also the ones people thought would "get worse," according to the survey. The only area that people thought would get better was the availability of good jobs, Brasier said.

She said that a relatively small number of respondents (10 percent) had signed a lease for gas rights. Of these, about half are satisfied with the terms of the lease. About half had received lease or royalty payments. A majority of those who had received payments said they were satisfied.

In addition to questions about the respondents' satisfaction with and attachment to their community, and knowledge of Marcellus Shale activities and impacts, participants also were asked their attitudes about development of the Marcellus and their trust in organizations that are active in Marcellus Shale issues. Brasier said that trust in the natural-gas industry, state agencies and state governments has a great deal to do with attitudes toward Marcellus exploration.

Attitudes might also vary depending on whether respondents had bad previous experiences with other extractive sectors, such as coal or shallow gas, or had experienced other social or environmental problems as a result of that activity.

Brasier said that future work will compare responses on the community satisfaction variables across time. She said she also wants to get a better sense of residents' feelings about the workers, including those who might have moved recently to the area because of gas drilling. Future surveys also are likely to explore what people do for recreation and how these activities might be affected by drilling.

The "Natural Gas Experiences of Marcellus Residents" webinar is part of an ongoing series of workshops addressing issues related to the state's Marcellus Shale gas boom. Previous webinars, which covered topics such as water use and quality, zoning, gas-leasing considerations for landowners and implications for local communities, can be viewed at http://extension.psu.edu/naturalgas/webinars online.

For more information, contact John Turack, extension educator in Westmoreland County, at 724-937-1402 or by e-mail at jdt15@psu.edu.

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Last Updated November 18, 2010