The Franklin and Marshall poll on public opinion of the Pennsylvania gas industry is a treasure trove of insights.
Here are my key interpretations of the data:
1. Despite a massive amount of mostly negative and critical scrutiny of the gas drilling industry, the gas industry remains standing and ahead on all cards if this were a boxing match, with the public favoring the gas industry 2 to 1.
2. Why does the public have a favorable view of the industry? The industry has delivered economic benefits; the public expects those benefits to grow and broaden in several ways, including a drilling tax; and the industry has avoided any major environmental impact to substantial populations like drilling causing smog. There have been negative environmental impacts like truck traffic, erosion issues, and a small number of private water wells contaminated by gas or spills. But big problems with streams or drinking water supplies have not taken place or the industry would have lost public support.
3. The industry can count on about a third of the public staying with it almost no matter what. 31% of the public strongly favors the industry; 20% opposes a drilling tax; and 20% favors more drilling in the state forests. This group are the folks who sing, shout, scream: "Drill Baby Drill!"
4. But the current 2 to 1 support for the industry is conditional and fragile, because another 34% of the public that currently favors the gas industry harbors doubts. For example, just 39% of the public believes the benefits of drilling outweigh the environmental impacts, while 35% believe that the environmental impacts outweigh the benefits of drilling. A critical 26% is not sure.
5. Two things must happen for the industry to maintain the critical 34% of opinion that supports the industry but not strongly so. First, the industry must continuously improve operations, resolve problems that do occur honestly and quickly, and avoid any widespread negative impacts on the public such as air pollution impacts.
Second, this middle group expects to see broad and real benefits for all Pennsylvanians if they are to continue to support it.
6. This middle group of 34% also favors a drilling tax, because they see the tax revenues and its use for important needs as a way of making every Pennsylvanian a direct beneficiary of hosting the gas drilling industry. Only 20% oppose the drilling tax and they are all concentrated in the group that strongly supports the industry. Political opposition to a drilling tax carries considerable risk. Paying a drilling tax is now indispensable for the industry to maintain public support. Another demonstration of real benefits to the public would be access to cheaper natural gas for transportation or heating fuels as well as replacing old, highly polluting coal plants.
7. The public views drilling on public lands and private lands completely differently. While the public is willing to tilt toward economic development on private lands, it strongly favors conserving the natural integrity of its public lands. Further drilling in state forests will trigger a tsunami of opposition.
8. Drilling in state parks will trigger a 9.5 earthquake plus a 30 foot tsunami. Any company considering drilling in state parks should reconsider its business plans. Furthermore drilling in state parks would be a public opinion disaster for the entire industry.