Photo Caption: A worker monitors operations of an oil derrick in Carroll County, Ohio, last year. Carroll County is considered ground zero for the Utica shale play in Ohio.
A new survey conducted by Ohio University business students suggests that while local residents are nervous that drilling for shale oil and/or gas here may hurt the environment, they also tend to think that if it does happen, it will be an economic boon in terms of jobs and overall quality of life.
Broadly, the survey suggests a population that's about evenly split over whether it would be good or bad for Athens County to become a major fracking area.
On the crucial question of whether the person surveyed would or would not support horizontal hydraulic fracturing to drill for fossil fuels here, the answers tended to cluster about equally at the two extremes of for and against.
Out of 416 respondents to this question, around 37 percent said they are strongly opposed to fracking, while about 36 percent said they strongly support it. About another 8 percent expressed some opposition, and about 15 percent showed a moderate level of support. Fewer than 4 percent of those who answered the survey came down as neutral on this question.
This puts 45 percent of the respondents on the "anti" side of the fracking issue and 51 percent on the "pro."
Interestingly, even with a small advantage on the support side, fewer than one in three respondents seemed to believe the oil-and-gas industry has our best interests at heart.
Asked to respond to the statement, "I have distrust for oil and gas companies," more than 36 percent of respondents said they strongly agreed with it, and another 13 percent said they agreed with it. Fewer than 32 percent of respondents either disagreed or strongly disagreed with the notion that oil-and-gas firms are shifty.
On the question of environmental impact, more respondents than not said the fracking process poses risks. The support for this view was not overwhelming, however.
Out of 416 people who were asked whether, "for the most part," they thought fracking was "safe for the environment," the biggest chunk – almost 41 percent – said they strongly disagreed with this statement. Another 8 percent said they disagreed with it, putting those who believe the process to be risky at about 49 percent.
Only about 18 percent of those surveyed said they strongly agreed that fracking is safe. Another 25 percent agreed less strongly, giving a 43 percent total on that side of the question.
About 8 percent of respondents were neutral on this question.
One of the OU business students who helped conduct the survey said Friday that he found the results a little surprising, given the amount of very vocal opposition that has been generated in Athens County by the prospect that the "horizontal hydraulic fracturing" method may be used to drill for oil in shale beds under the county.
Instead of widespread opposition, however, said OU senior Michael C. Bendokaitis, the pollsters found an expectation among residents that fracking will bring jobs and new revenue to the county, combined with some misgivings about potential environmental damage.
"It was kind of, 'We want the money, but we don't want the environmental impact that comes with it,'" he suggested.
On the question of economic impact, a slight majority seemed to believe that fracking – even with its risks to the environment and public health – could help bring more prosperity to Athens County.
One question, for example, asked whether the respondent agreed that revenue from fracking would improve the overall quality of life here.
On this question, 30 percent of those surveyed said they strongly disagreed, and 14 percent said they disagreed, meaning that 44 percent of those polled don't expect an influx of money from fracking to improve our quality of life.
On the "agree" side, 28 percent of respondents said they strongly agreed that fracking money will make the life of county residents better, and 20 percent said they agreed less strongly with this prediction; thus, 48 percent of the sample expected good things economically from fracking revenue.
As for employment impacts, 29 percent of those surveyed said they either disagree or strongly disagree that fracking will bring jobs to the county. Nearly 56 percent, on the other hand, said they agreed or strongly agreed that fracking will mean more jobs.
One point that many respondents seemed to agree on is that the state needs to regulate fracking more carefully.
To the question of whether Ohio should impose stricter regulations on the process, 57 percent said yes – with most of those, 48 percent of the total, saying they strongly agreed with imposing stronger rules. Less than 32 percent said they disagreed or strongly disagreed that there's a need to tighten up regulation.
THE DEMOGRAPHIC PROFILE OF THOSE surveyed is interesting, in that it tends to suggest that those answering the questions do not, for the most part, have an immediate personal economic interest in it. (The survey was distributed through the Athens NEWS at least in part, and may therefore reflect the demographics of its readership to some extent.)
Most respondents said they live in Athens County, though 15 percent live elsewhere. A large majority (86 percent) said they are homeowners, and well over half were over 50 years old. The breakdown by sex was about equal. The survey group was reasonably affluent by southeast Ohio standards; only 14 percent of the group reported annual household incomes of less than $25,000, and almost 30 percent said they earned more than $75,000.
A very large majority, 95 percent, said they've done their own research on fracking, using the Internet, newspaper and magazine articles, public information sessions, and more.
Only 10 percent said they themselves currently have a lease with an oil-and-gas company, and only 5 percent reported that they're currently getting royalty payments.
One question asked whether, if approached by an oil-and-gas company, the respondent would sign or modify a lease to allow fossil fuel extraction from their property.
The biggest number – 42 percent – answered, "definitely not." Another 4 percent said "probably not" – meaning 46 percent of those surveyed were unlikely to sign a lease.
Exactly the same percentage, however, said they "probably" or "definitely" would sign a lease if approached.
Most respondents seemed to not expect any immediate personal business advantage from fracking; about two-thirds said they "definitely" or "probably" would not be trying to get business from an oil and gas company.
The level of willingness expressed to open one's own land to drilling dropped a bit when the same question was put regarding Ohio University land.
Some 51 percent of those surveyed said OU should not lease its land for drilling with 36 percent saying it should, and 13 percent expressing indifference on this issue.
Asked to suggest alternatives to extractive industries as a source of power, many respondents expressed a deep fondness for solar, wind and renewables, and many suggested that burning fossil fuels simply has to end at some point.
This section brought out the pulpit speaker in some respondents, triggering lengthy and impassioned responses. These include one writer who offered more than 800 words of intense analysis, beginning with, "All the fossil fuel will be all used up one day," and concluding with, "There is no more room for debate. The time to change is now, before it is too late, if it is not already."
The survey was a class project for students in OU's Marketing 379 class, taught by Ashok Gupta.